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December 28, 2005 [LINK]
Morales pledges to reject U.S. aid
Bolivia's president-elect, Evo Morales, says he will reject any U.S. foreign aid that is conditioned on Bolivia's cooperation in the coca eradication program. He plans a world tour in preparation for his inauguration, and his first stop will be Havana, Cuba. See CNN.com. Morales lacks any experience in government whatsoever, so his early months in office are likely to be marked by a lot of sharp crowd-pleasing rhetoric and inconsistent actions, as he faces up to the harsh realities of governance. With any luck, he will follow the example of Brazil's "Lula" da Silva and proceed with his sweeping reform agenda in a responsible way. In any event, his accession to power will be a momentous occasion for Bolivia, which has never had a full-blooded ethnic Indian serve as chief executive.
Chile to buy German tanks
The nearly-completed sale involves 100 advanced-technology Leopard tanks, which have long been the primary weapon of the German Army. This is the last major part of a weapons acquisition program that included ten U.S.-built F-16 jet fighters, 18 Dutch jets, four frigates, and two submarines. High prices for copper are said to be the reason for this buildup. See CNN.com. (Chile's strategic rival Peru is a major copper exporter as well.) Such purchases are normally arranged over a long period of time, so there may be no particular strategic motive behind it. The timing of the announcement may be in response to Peru's recent declarations about maritime sovereignty, which has offended many people in Chile.
December 22, 2005 [LINK]
Election fallout in Bolivia
Evo Morales has won 54 percent of the natiowide vote in the Bolivian presidential elections, an even more clear-cut victory than first appeared. During a telephone interview, he expressed a desire to work with Fidel Castro in seeking "social justice" in the region. Meanwhile, a Spanish radio station owned by the Catholic Church is in trouble because the host of a comedy show telephoned Morales with a bogus congratulatory message, pretending to be Prime Minister Zapatero, who is a socialist and sympathetic to the leftist surge in South America. See CNN.com [link label corrected].
Peace talks in Colombia
Representatives of the ELN (National Army of Liberation) met with government officials over a period of five days, in an initial round of discussions aiming toward a truce. Nobel-winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez and diplomats from Europe participated as facilitators.
December 19, 2005 [LINK]
Evo Morales wins in Bolivia
As expected, the leftist candidate Evo Morales won the largest number of votes in yesterday's presidential elections in Bolivia. What was unexpected was the share he received: about 51 percent, according to the latest estimates, about 20 percent more than Jorge Quiroga. If it turns out that Morales did not receive a majority, it would be up to the newly-elected Bolivian Congress to choose the next president. Given the high tensions in the country right now, however, choosing anyone other than Morales would result in an immediate insurrection on the part of the mostly-poor Indians. In the Washington Post, Pamela Constable calls the "sweeping if unofficial victory of Evo Morales ... has given him an unprecedented opportunity to transform the impoverished Andean country." If Morales indeed embarks on the kind of radical policy agenda that he has espoused, but without a broad public mandate, it could tear the country apart. That is what happened in Chile after Socialist Salvador Allende became president (without an absolute majority) in 1970.
Morales has made rejection of the pro-capitalist "neoliberal" economic development model the cornerstone of his campaign platform, but it is unclear what alternatives he intends to carry out. Ever since 1989 or so, most political leaders in Bolivia had a rough consensus that free market policies were an essential foundation, and that there could be no return to the irresponsible statist economic policies that had led the country to hyperinflation and virtual ruin by 1985, when I visited Bolivia. Morales has pledged to cease cooperation with U.S. government programs aimed at curtailing coca cultivation, and has said nothing to alleviate fears that he sees nothing wrong with growing coca leaf that ends up being processed into cocaine. That would set his government squarely at odds with U.S. national interests.
Miguel Centellas, who had been blogging intensively on Bolivia until this weekend, has a very curt post about the election results. He notes that this would be the first directly elected president of Bolivia since the return to democracy in 1982. Customarily, the Congress has chosen the president because no candidate has won an outright majority until, presumably, now.
Election results can be found (in Spanish) at bolivia.com. Interestingly, only two of the nine prefectural (provincial) elections were won by the "Movement Toward Socialism," which Morales leads: Potosi and Oruro, which are mining centers in the highland region. Also on that site is a report that the Mercosur economic bloc, composed of Argentina, Brasil, Paraguay, and Uruguay, expressed "pride" in the "exemplary" character of the elections in Bolivia. Given the political leanings of the current governments in those countries, they were no doubt just as pleased with the outcome of the elections as with the process.
Defending the Monarchs
In central Mexico, many millions of Monarch butterflies are currently hibernating in a unique highland habitat. If logging continues in that area much longer, the Monarchs could easily become extinct. That is why the Mexican government is now using armed guards to ward off anyone seeking to chop down trees in the butterfly sanctuary. See CNN.com.
December 15, 2005 [LINK]
Election nears in Bolivia
Only three days remain until voters in Bolivia choose their next president, and given the high anxiety over the possible win by leftist Evo Morales, the country is calmer than most people would have expected. The other leading contender is Jorge "Tuto" Quiroga, who served in the government of Hugo Banzer. He belongs to the Podemos ("We Can") Party, an apparent recent creation that is described as "social democratic." He says that if doesn't get a majority in the first round, he will not contest the second round. That is a puzzling declaration, presumably calculated to push voters who fear Morales but favor other candidates his way. See CNN.com.
Dominican Republic vs. Haiti
The Dominican Republic demanded an apology from Haiti after crowds threw stones at President Leonel Fernandez during a visit to the neighboring country on the other side of the island of Hispaniola. People in Haiti are angry at the mistreatment of Haitians who work in the Dominican Republic, many illegally. See CNN.com.
December 13, 2005 [LINK]
Chilean election: Round Two
In Chile, Socialist candidate Michelle Bachelet failed to win an absolute majority of the vote, so there will be a second round runoff election on January 15 against conservative Sebastian Piñera, who got about 26 percent. He studied economics at Harvard and owns the Chilean airline LAN, which has acquired subsidiaries in Peru and Bolivia. If all of those who voted for third-place candidate Joaquin Lavin (who got 23 percent) in the first round vote for Piñera in Round Two, he would win. Thirteen leading members of the centrist Christian Democratic Party announced they will support Piña, among whom Fernando Moreno said that it would be "immoral" for a party called "Christian Democratic" to urge people to vote for an atheist candidate. (Bachelet says she is agnostic.) In response, Christian Democrats' leader, Adolfo Zaldívar, warned that any members who supported Piñera would be expelled from the party. See CNN.com and El Mercurio Online (Spanish). Historically, the Chilean political party system has been fairly stable, with three or four major parties competing in most national elections, but since the Pinochet dictatorship ended, two large coalitions -- the leftist "Concertación" and the rightist "Alianza" -- have played a decisive role in deciding electoral outcomes. In Chile's congressional elections, the Socialist Party gained a few seats in both the Senate and Chamber of Deputies, while the Christian Democrats lost a few seats.
December 10, 2005 [LINK]
Chavez triumphs in Venezuela
Since there was no significant opposition, the victory of the Chavista "Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement" candidates for Congress last Sunday was anti-climactic. Not many people will take his victory very seriously, however. As A.M. Mora y Leon, one of the pro-democracy bloggers at publiuspundit.com put it, "WHAT IF THEY GAVE AN ELECTION AND NOBODY CAME?" He witnessed the abysmally low turnout in Caracas, and provided background on the controversy surrounding the government's intended use of fingerprint identification devices. Since there are many documented cases of government opponents facing harrassment and violence, voters had good reason to suspect how such new technology might be used to track them down. In his post-election follow-up report, he relayed the fear and depressed sentiments of many Venezuelan people, now that Chavez has established himself as a virtual dictator. According to observers from the EU, however, the election was fair and square: "For us, there was transparency in the electoral process,' said [Jose] Silva [of Portugal], who oversaw about 160 observers." See CNN.com. Well, there's no reason to cheat if there is no competition, right?
Now that the center-right opposition parties have given up on what remained of the democratic process in Venezuela, the possibilities for an eventual accommodation have narrowed even further. After trying and failing to oust Chavez via a general strike (December 2003-January 2004) and then in a referendum (August 2004), they have basically shut themselves out of the nation's political life. There is an analysis of the opposition movement's future prospects at BBC.com. According to political scientist Margarita Lopez-Maya, "The opposition in Venezuela has committed suicide by boycotting the elections."
In another troubling incident, the government blamed the opposition for an election day explosion that damaged a pipeline that provides more than a third of the oil to the giant Paraguana refining complex.
Election eve in Chile
The presumptive victor in tomorrow's presidential election in Chile, Michelle Bachelet, stands poised to shake her country's traditions to its very roots. She would be the first woman elected president in South America, and is a single mother, in fact. (Isabela Peron succeeded to the top office after her husband Juan died, and a woman briefly held that office in Ecuador a few years ago.) She is an avowed socialist, becoming active in politics under the regime of Salvador Allende, and is an agnostic in a country that has long been culturally conservative. That does not mean she is without faith, however: She declared "I believe in the state." Yikes. See Washington Post. Ricardo Lagos and other left-leaning presidents in recent years have pursued relatively moderate economic policies, being smart enough not to ruin the incredible accomplishments that were brought about under the authoritarian tutelage of dictator Augusto Pinochet. Whether Ms. Bachelet maintains that record is an open question. It will also be interesting to see how she handles the recent martime jurisdiction dispute with Peru.
Talks with rebels in Colombia
President Uribe says his government will begin negotiations with the National Liberation Army (ELN). They are the lesser-known guerrilla movement in Colombia, reputedly less vicious than FARC, and apparently not so deeply enmeshed in the narcotics trade. Their willingness to negotiate may be related to being short on funds. President Uribe ordered the ELN leader Francisco Galan released from prison in September as an olive branch gesture. At least Uribe has stronger credentials than his predecessor Andres Pastrana did, and therefore is more likely to get something in exchange for such concessions. See CNN.com.
December 2, 2005 [LINK]
Chile-Peru maritime dispute
The dispute over maritime boundaries is heating up, as the Peruvian Foreign Ministry declared that existing agreements between Peru, Chile, and Ecuador dealt only with fishing rights and did not establish sovereign jurisdiction. Yesterday Presidents Lagos (of Chile) and Palacios (of Ecuador) reaffirmed that the declaration of 1952 and accord of 1952 between those three countries remain fully in effect, in response to a unilateral declaration redefining maritime rights passed by the Peruvian Congress on November 3. On Monday, the commander in chief of the Chilean Army, Juan Emilio Cheyre, denied that there were any military tensions along the border with Peru. See El Murcurio Online (Chile, in Spanish).
In the race for Chile's presidency, leading candidate Michelle Bachelet, of the center-left Concertación, complained that a "campaign of terror" is being waged against her. To back this up, she cited rumors that she plans to abolish the armed forces pension system, bringing military personnel into the civilian system, and that she supposedly supports homosexual marriage. The election will be December 11. See El Murcurio Online (Chile, in Spanish).
Bolivian missile envy
Leftist presidential candidate Evo Morales is suing Bolivia's President Rodriguez and defense minister for having dismantled 30 Chinese HN-5 shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, on the grounds that cooperating with the United States in this disarmament program was a betrayal of national sovereignty. Many people feared that those missiles could have fallen into the hands of terrorists. Since both officials will be out of office in the next few months, however, the lawsuit is largely moot. It is obviously a symbolic gesture aimed at demonstrating Morales' nationalistic credentials. The election will be December 18. See CNN.com.
December 1, 2005 [LINK]
Nicaragua-Costa Rica dispute
Relations between Nicaragua and Costa Rica have become tense because an old border dispute has come up again. After Costa Rica presented a complaint to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Nicaragua imposed punitive entry fees on Costa Rican travelers, and raised the long-dormant territorial claim on the province of Guanacaste, in northwest Costa Rica. According to the Tico Times, Costa Rica 's ambassador to Nicaragua, Rodrigo Carreras, noted that the stalemate reflects the fact that the [San Juan] river is a much more important issue to Nicaragua than it is to Costa Rica. He is striving to improve mutual understanding between the neighboring countries, which have distinct cultural traditions. This dispute comes in the midst of intense public debate over free trade in the region, and may make Costa Rican ratification of CAFTA less likely.
It so happens that I purchased a detailed topographical map of Costa Rica when I was there in February. It clearly shows that the border with Nicaragua follows the south bank of the Rio San Juan, not down the middle of it. Unless some treaty gave explicit navigational rights to Costa Rica, I would say the case is closed.
Warm feelings from Venezuela
As the temperatures in the eastern United States plummet, and heating bills rise, today's Washington Post included a full-page ad trumpeting the low-cost energy program for poor people in the northeast, sponsored by Venezuela-owned CITGO. It concludes,
This fuel assistance program isn't about politics. It's about offering humanitarian aid to those who need it. What could be more American than that?
Indeed! Well, the marketing campaign is certainly American-style. I can't wait until Chavez pays a visit to the shivering, downtrodden proletarian residents of The Bronx. Hu-go! Hu-go! It's certainly a welcome change of pace from all the denunciations of "North American imperialism" coming from President Chavez lately. Given the polemics related to the withdrawal of opposition parties from the upcoming legislative elections, Venezuela clearly needs to improve its image abroad. For more, see Embassy of Venezuela in the United States.
Many people argue that Americans who buy gasoline from companies that get their crude oil from Saudi Arabia are indirectly funding terrorism. Perhaps those who buy gasoline from CITGO stations should consider whether they want to support the left-wing authoriarian regime of Chavez's "Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement." I don't think a boycott would do any good, and in fact, I think the United States should take a very low-key, tolerant attitude toward Chavez until he gets tired of throwing tantrums, or until there is clear evidence that he is connected to terrorist movements.
UPDATE: Venezuelan Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel accused the U.S. Embassy of instigating the withdrawal from the upcoming elections by the opposition parties. Oh well... See CNN.com.
November 30, 2005 [LINK]
Venezuelan opposition backs out
The three main opposition parties in Venezuela -- Democratic Action, Project Venezuela, and the Social Christian Party (COPEI) -- announced they are withdrawing from the legislative elections set for this weekend because flaws in the national voter registry have not been corrected. Chavez is seeking a two-thirds majority so that he can enact constitutional changes that would remove the last impediments to his "Bolivarian revolution." The opposition had been rather subdued ever since Chavez won in the referendum of August 2004, and this may be a sign that they plan to resume overt resistance to the authoritarian regime. See CNN.com.
Honduras election: too close
The votes in the presidential election in Honduras are still being counted, and Manuel Zelaya's lead has shrunk from five percent to half of one percent. "Pepe" Lobo Sosa complained that the election official who declared Zelaya the winner, after only one percent of the votes were counted, is from Zelaya's Liberal Party. Observers from the OAS say they will stay until the tabulation is completed. Sounds like another Florida! See CNN.com.
November 28, 2005 [LINK]
Liberals win Honduran election
The candidate of the Liberal Party, Manuel Zelaya, has (apparently) won the presidential election in Honduras, by a comfortable margin of about five percent. It will take another day or two to complete the count, and National Party candidate "Pepe" Lobo -- an ally of incumbent President Ricardo Maduro -- has not yet conceded. Zelaya's campaign emphasized fighting corruption, while Lobo called for a tough stance against criminal gangs, applying the death penalty. Both candidates are wealthy landowners and support the CAFTA free-trade agreement, which is odd in a region where there is considerable anti-American sentiment. Inauguration day will be January 27. CNN.com.
November 25, 2005 [LINK]
Chavez offers oil, seeks arms
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has directed that CITGO, a subsidiary of Venezuela government oil firm, begin selling heating oil at a discount to poor neighborhoods in New York and Massachusetts. The transparent bid to divide Americans and undermine President Bush was well received by some of the early recipients, and Rev. Jesse Jackson praised the "noble" initiative. See Washington Post, and the corporate press release accessed via CITGO.com. Curiously, Boston and the Bronx have been targeted for this program, which may be the one thing that can finally overcome the hatred between fans of the Yankees and Red Sox. Perhaps they should put a portrait of Chavez atop the famous CITGO sign that looms beyond the "Green Monster" wall in Fenway Park!
Not content to posture as a benevolent despot, Chavez is intent on building up Venezuela's military force, ostensibly to bolster its defenses against an imagined invasion by the gringos. He is going ahead with plans to acquire modern arms manufactured in Spain, whose Socialist prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez, Zapatero has warm relations with Chavez. "Spain plans to sell $1.56 billion of equipment to Venezuela, including four coastal patrol ships, four corvettes, 10 C-295 transport planes and two maritime surveillance planes." See CNN.com.
UPDATE: Venezuelan blogger Pedro Mario Burelli has some thoughts about what Hugo is up to, especially the Kennedy connection to CITGO. Teddy gives new meaning to the phrase "Big Oil"! Now I know why that sign near Fenway park is so prominent. (link via Chris Green)
Flap over Bolivian elections
Meanwhile, the busy-body Chavez and his government have continued to meddle in the internal affairs of Bolivia, which has become even more unstable in recent months. The Bolivian foreign ministry summoned Venezuelan diplomat Azael Galero after he compared Jorge Quiroga, a candidate in the elections set for next month, to Pontius Pilate. Chavez openly backs the left-wing Evo Morales, whom he joined at the anti-U.S. protests during the Summit of the Americas in Argentina. See BBC.com
Pinochet under house arrest
After many months of suspense, Chilean authorities have formally charged former dictator Augusto Pinochet with embezzlement and money laundering, apparently based on revelations of his dealings with the Washington-based Riggs Bank. He just celebrated his 90th birthday under house arrest. However, there are as yet no charges against him on human rights grounds, and many former victims of Pinochet, and their families, are angered by this. See BBC.com.
The Honduran elections are only two days away, and the two leading contenders -- Porfirio Lobo Sosa (National Party) and Jose Manuel Zelaya Rosales (Liberal Party) -- are apparently matched fairly evenly. Both are considered moderate conservatives. See BBC.com
Haiti's first-round election has been postponed again, until January 4. The second round is scheduled for February 15.
November 21, 2005 [LINK]
Minutemen come to Virginia
Those vigilantes who have taken it upon themselves to police the wide-open U.S.-Mexico border, the Minutemen (see Web site), have come to Virginia, looking for illegal aliens in work places. If news reports and anecdotal tales of harrassment and intimidation are accurate, then this is clearly stepping over the line of legitimate citizen action, turning into crude xenophobic persecution. As I've said before, however, unless and until the Federal government and state governments agree on a more consistent approach to immigration soon, the door will be wide open to these "free-lancers," needlessly raising social tensions. If there is one clear lesson from what just happened in France, This matter cannot be left on the back burner forever!
The Washington Post editorialized against these self-appointed guardians, but they missed a fundamental point: The demand for labor in Northern Virginia reflects the high barriers to entry for legitimate employees, via mandated fringe benefits, with skyrocketing health insurance premiums, etc., etc. By deriding efforts to uphold the law (they sniff that the IRS "has bigger fish to fry") the Post is contributing to the atmosphere of lawlessness that undergirds a substantial portion of the U.S. economy, but which hardly anyone has the guts to acknowledge. What a shame.
Protests against Fujimori
A background article by Monte Reel in Saturday's Washington Post explored the various reactions by Peruvians to the surprise arrival (and arrest) of former president Alberto Fujimori in Chile last week. Opinion polls indicate that most people oppose his (possible) candidacy, but many of his backers remain fervently convinced that "only he can save Peru." (I'm borrowing the slogan of APRA for the sake of ironic effect.) The "Si, cumple" movement sounds suspiciously like a Fujimorista front organization to me.
Venezuela may join MERCOSUR
Presidents Hugo Chavez and Nestor Kirchner met to discuss building a pipeline that would carry natural gas from Venezuela to Argentina. The estimated cost is $10 billion, and there would be a high risk to the ecologically sensitive Amazon Basin; think Alaska pipeline times ten. Chavez is thinking about joining MERCOSUR, but doing so might necessitate pulling out of the Andean Group, which is headquartered in Lima, Peru. See CNN.com.
Guatemalan official arrested
The top Guatemalan anti-narcotics investigator, Adan Castillo, was arrested in Virginia on drug-smuggling charges last week, along with two of his deputies. In a supreme irony, he was attending a training course on fighting drug trafficking. See CNN.com. The State Department had strongly criticized drug corruption of the previous leader of Guatemala, Alfonso Portillo, and this case shows that this problem lingers to some extent in the government of Oscar Berger, who was inaugurated in January 2004.
November 18, 2005 [LINK]
Merino is Peru's new ombudsman
Beatriz Merino, a respected technocrat who had once headed the country's tax collection agency SUNAT, was just sworn in as "Defender of the Public," a kind of ombudsman. See La Republica (of Peru, in Spanish). In a country where public administration is often capricious and/or corrupt, that is a very important position. Ms. Merino served as prime minister for the hapless President Toledo from July until December 2003, and was forced to step down after a vicious campaign of rumors that she was a lesbian.
The presidential election in Honduras will be November 27, nine days hence. The candidate of the National Party, Porfirio Lobo Sosa, promised 600,000 new jobs under the slogan of "work and security for all." With a background in agribusiness (wealthy landlord?), he says he has a strong fist but denies aspiring to be a dictator. See El Herald, in Spanish.
Costa Rica & CAFTA
At least 10,000 people marched to the seat of the national legislature in San Jose on Wednesday, protesting against the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States. Costa Rica is the only signatory state that has not yet ratified the agreement.
November 17, 2005 [LINK]
Latin American guards in Iraq
About a thousand privately employed ex-soldiers from Peru, Chile, Nicaragua, and Honduras recently began patrol duties in the (relatively) safe "Green Zone" of Baghdad, where government ministries, embassies, and Western journalists are concentrated. They are paid $1,000 a month, plus room and board. Whether they ought to be considered as mercenaries remains to be determined. See El Heraldo of Tegucigalpa. (in Spanish). Honduras had deployed 300 of its troops to Iraq, but withdrew them later. El Salvador still has a small contingent there, as far as I can determine...
November 17, 2005 [LINK]
Fujimori stays behind bars
A judicial review panel in Chile has approved the detention of Alberto Fujimori, as Peru prepares a legal briefing in support of its request to have Fujimori returned to Peru. There is a 60-day deadline, so he may remain in Chile until January. See CNN.com. As a gesture of protest against Japan's refusal to cooperate with the request to extradite its former president, Peru recalled its ambassador to Japan last week.
The background to Fujimori's bold gamble remain obscure, but the decision to return to Peru apparently was precipitated by a political pact between Cambio 90 and a party called "Si Cumple" (meaning, "yes, he carries out"), whose leader Luis Delgado Aparicio recently visited Fujimori in Japan. Since there have been no statements in English on his Web site since October 4, 2004 (when he denied accusations that he had pocketed charitable donations from Japan), I thought it would be useful to translate the farewell address to Japan he made ten days ago (see his Web site):
MESSAGE FROM ALBERTO FUJIMORI, LEAVING JAPAN
At the end of November 2000, being president of Peru, then in Tokyo, I took the painful decision to resign this office, assuming the immense political cost for doing so. Since then, in truth, a campaign of persecution and defamation without precedent in Peruvian history was launched by my adversaries.
My self-exile is reaching its end. I have become deeply indebted to Japan for its generous hospitality and of its people, which is the people of my ancestors; for the affection of friends who know Peru and the works of my government and that they never wavered in offering me their support to make my stay in this country bearable, and becoming acquainted with the Japanese economy and technology so that it might serve as a model of Peruvian development.
To this fortunate stay, in spite of the cost of being so far distanced from Peru, I owe to all my Japanese friends who never wavered in supporting me; to them my eternal thanks.
And my special message to the Japanese people, to their authorities: I leave Japan on route to Peru, to carry out the pledge of honor acquired from millions of my countrymen, so that the historical truth be expressed. One by one I shall overcome the accusations, and I shall restore my innocence and honor.
Once in Peru I hope to return to work boldly for my fatherland, for its people, so that we Peruvians may have, as a national collectivity, a prominent place in the world.
For reasons that only politics can explain, I have waited five years to begin this effort. I have the fortune of a great Japanese experience, of contact with the extraordinary and unstoppable progress of Japan's science and economy, which I have tried to assimilate for the benefit of Peru.
Thank you, friends, I am going to meet my destiny, alwasy sure of counting on your generous support and understanding that we achieve in all the works in which Japanese cooperation was present.
Thank you, friends, we do not bid farewell, we are only separating for a moment. For the rest, just as in these years of self-exile Peru was always in my heart, and from now on, with the same sentiment, Japan will be as well.
KONO GONEN KAN TAIHEN OSEWANI NARIMASHITE, DOMO ARIGATO GOZAIMASHITA.
November 7, 2005
One gesture of trust and faith in Peru that Fujimori could make to show that he is truly committed to serve his native country once again would be to renounce the Japanese citizenship that was conferred upon him during his exile. Holding dual citizenship raises questions about the strength of his loyalty. I was fortunate to interview or at least meet a few people who had served in the Fujimori government, and I am very curious whether he will be open to interviews from scholars and journalists as he presses ahead with the effort to restore his tarnished name. Is he a big enough man to admit that he made some big mistakes?
Campaign in Chile nears end
With one month to go before the presidential elections in Chile, the candidate of leftist "Concertación" bloc, Michelle Bachelet, has a commanding lead in the latest polls, 44 percent, to 20 percent for Joaquín Lavín, running on the ticket of the Indepdendent Democratic Union. Both are fairly young, in their early fifties. According to her Web site, Bachelet is a multilingual medical doctor who has studied military sciences at the postgraduate level. During the Allende government, she was a student leader of Socialist Youth. She has served as Minister of Health and later Minister of Defense in the government of Ricardo Lagos, who has been president since 2000. The likely runner-up, Lavín, is a "Chicago Boy" (with a Masters Degree in Economics ) and was elected mayor of Santiago in 2000. See his Web site.
Mexico - Venezuela tensions
Mexico and Venezuela have recalled diplomats from each other's country, because of the dispute over an insulting comment by Hugo Chavez toward Mexico's President Fox and his free trade policies during the recent Summit of the Americas. Chavez had stooped to crude macho posturing, which the proud and dignified Fox deeply resented. See CNN.com.
Uruguay - Argentina tensions
People in Argentina are protesting a paper pulp mill project that is under construction in Uruguay. Fearing polluted runoff into the Uruguay River that separates the nations, the Argentines are threatening to shut down the natural pipeline that the new plants will depend on for energy. A Finnish company, Metsa-Botnia, and a Spanish company, Ence, are investing about $1.7 billion into the project. According to the Washington Post, much of the opposition stems from nationalistic resentment of "exploitation" by foreigners.
Haiti elections delayed
The presidential elections in Haiti, scheduled for this month, have been postponed until December 27. The country remains deeply divided and tormented by gangs of rival warlords, and hopes for a clean resolution to the deep socio-political conflicts remain slim.
November 7, 2005 [LINK]
Fujimori arrested in Chile!
Former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori was arrested in Chile, only one day after he arrived on a flight via Mexico from Japan, where he had been living in exile for the past five years. After some initial confusion on the part of Chilean authorities about Peru's request for extradition, a judge issued the necessary arrest warrant. Fujimori issued a statement that he intends to return to Peru to run for president in the election to be held next April, notwithstanding the fact that Peru's Congress passed a measure preventing him from holding public office until 2011. The fact that Fujimori's arrival in Chile coincides with the recent increase in tensions over the ancient territorial disputes makes one wonder who might be seeking to exploit the international tensions. The abysmally unpopular president Alejandro Toledo would be a logical suspect if he were running for reelection, but the initiative for Peru's redefinition of the border seems to have originated from within the legislative branch. See CNN.com. (NOTE: There are two factual inaccuracies in that article: Fujimori did not exactly "flee" Peru in 2000, but rather took refuge in Japan while attending an international conference. Second, he was not granted Japanese citizenship until several months later.)
Though often referred to as a "dictator" in Peru, and by some foreign journalists, Fujimori never ruled with an iron fist, and there was substantial, vocal opposition to his policies throughout the ten years he served as president. He remained very popular until 2000, when evidence of rigged elections and systematic bribery of opponents and journalists destroyed his credibility. Most of those dirty tricks were probably concocted by his "security adviser," Vladimiro Montesinos, but Fujimori was responsible. Though tainted by favoritism, the economic policy reforms he pushed through saved Peru from financial ruin, paving the way for an amazing economic recovery that remains the envy of the rest of Latin America. (That fact is hardly ever reported in the mainstream media.) If Fujimori had not let success go to his head and coerced the constitutional court into approving his second reelection on bogus legal grounds, but instead stepped down from power after his second term was over, he would almost certainly have been regarded as the most successful president in Peruvian history.
Summit ends without agreement
The Fourth Summit of the Americas ended without reaching any major policy agreements. President Bush's pitch for a hemispheric free trade area fell on largely deaf ears. Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Venezuela issued a statement that concluded, "The conditions do not exist to attain a hemispheric free trade accord that is balanced and fair with access to markets that is free of subsidies and distorting practices." See CNN.com. The first four of those countries belong to MERCOSUR, a trade union that exists in part for strategic balance-of-power reasons. Paraguay was recently visited by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and was believed to be cooperating with U.S. objectives. Mexico's President Fox was put in an awkward position when Hugo Chavez accused him of bending to U.S. pressure; Fox denied he was coerced in any way, which is ironic because he has taken a high-profile stance against major elements of U.S. foreign policy in recent years, precisely to placate nationalist and leftist critics. For his part, Chavez will no doubt trumpet his successful obstructionism back home in Venezuela.
Bush visits Brazil, Panama
On the way back north, Bush stopped in Brasilia, where he urged Brazilians to choose the alternative of hope in a more democratic future, coupled with free trade, and to reject the fear-mongering and finger-pointing of the past. It was a nice gesture, but President Da Silva does not believe in capitalism or free trade, merely making tactical accommodations to market realities for the sake of expediency. Bush wrapped up his South American sojourn with a stop in Panama, which recently elected a left-leaning populist president, Martin Torrijos, but is nonetheless regarded as one of the bright spots in the region. Bush then headed home to Washington, making a brief campaign stop in Richmond, Virginia.
November 4, 2005 [LINK]
Riot of the Americas
Not surprisingly, the protests at the Fourth Summit of the Americas in Argentina turned violent today: Molotov cocktails, looting, and burning the American flag. At least 64 people were arrested. Among those leading the protests was ex-soccer star Diego Maradona, whose reputation has been sullied since his retirement by scandals over drug use, mafia connections, and divorce. The leftist candidate for president of Bolivia, Evo Morales, was also there. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez took time out from his diplomatic duties to join the protesters and inflame anti-American passions. Some protesters carried signs calling President Bush a "fascist" and a "terrorist." Cuba was excluded on the grounds that its president is not democratically elected, but state-sponsored Cuban activists joined a leftist "People's Summit" nearby in Mar Del Plata. See CNN.com
In his speech to the summit, which was characterized by the Buenos Aires Clarin (Spanish) as "unusually tough," Argentine President Kirchner took a high-profile stance against the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA): "No integration serves us, other than that which recognizes diversity." He also repeated his past denunciations of the IMF for refusing to refinance Argentina's debt on terms demanded by the Argentine government. More generally, he rejected the open-market policies known as the "Washington Consensus," which became widely accepted in Latin American during the 1990s. As host of the summit, Kirchner decided upon the theme, which is creating jobs for the sake of democracy. To reinforce the gesture of defiance against international capitalism and U.S. interests in particular, Kirchner signed an agreement on selling agricultural equipment with Hugo Chavez, who promised to "bury" FTAA. His message resonates with many unemployed, uneducated people, who have become convinced, quite perversely, that free trade keeps them oppressed: "'We're a people united against free trade, because free trade is a policy of death for our countries,' said Carlos H. Reyes, 54, of Honduras." (from Washington Post) How can you argue with that kind of illogic?
The summit negotiations and speeches were nearly overshadowed by the turbulence in the streets, however. One wonders who will be blamed for this by the 33 heads of state who traveled to Argentina for the event. Indeed, it's beginning to look a lot like the 1960s again in Latin America, which for some people evokes sweet nostalgia and for others bodes ill for democratic rule. The big difference is that there is no connection between the revolutionary forces and the global adversaries of the United States such as there was during the Cold War. At least, there is no apparent connection to the Islamo-fascists. What should be the U.S. policy response if the radicals continue to gain power in that region, especially if they flirt with international terrorist movements? Actually, there's not much that can be done to influence the course of events, in large part because any use of leverage in the current situation would be construed as an attempt at coercion. Nevertheless, the option to give preference on immigration quotas to friendly countries should not be discarded entirely. Doing so would require new legislation.
Peru presidential race
Lourdes Flores Nano, of the conservative Popular Christian Party, is leading the polls with 33.9 percent in the Lima-Callao capital region. Alan Garcia of APRA has 13 percent, and Valentin Paniagua has 11.4%. See La Republica (in Spanish) That seems to be a surprising development, given that discontent elsewhere in Latin America has boosted the political fortunes of leftist-populist parties and leaders. Is Peru out of step with its neighbors, or have the Peruvian people wised up to the old Aprista tricks?
Meanwhile, tensions between Chile and Peru are rising again. Chile's President Lagos insists that Chile will continue to exercise sovereign control over its territorial waters, in spite of Peru's efforts to modify the border. He said he has no plans to meet with President Toledo of Peru at the summit in Mar del Plata.
November 1, 2005 [LINK]
Upcoming summit in Argentina
The 2005 "Summit of the Americas" will commence at the resort town of Mar del Plata, Argentina on Thursday. In anticipation of large-scale protests, there will be massive police protection for President Bush. That's a bit ironic, given that Argentina's president Nestor Kirchner rose to power by consciously cultivating nationalistic, anti-gringo sentiment. Several banks tied to U.S. interests have been hit by small bomb attacks in recent months. For a country with as much to be proud of as Argentina, that style of politics is, quite frankly, anachronistic and unworthy.
Last week the wife of the President, Cristina Fernandez Kirchner, won a seat in the Argentine senate, defeating the wife of former President Duhalde. Both are from the Peronista movement, though from opposing factions of the fractious "Justicialista" Party.
Elections in Bolivia?
The Bolivian elections that had been scheduled for December 4 have been postponed because of the continuing dispute over whether to use the most recent census figures in apportioning legislative seats. The highland provinces, including La Paz, would lose strength if the change is made in accord with the constitution. Since that is where leftist leader Evo Morales draws his greatest strength, however, his followers are threatening more strikes and protests if they don't get their way. The country teetered on the brink of civil war earlier this year, and could be headed in that direction once again. Monday's Washington Post had a background story by Monte Reel on Morales's grievances about social exploitation. "He said the squabble over congressional seats was calculated to derail his campaign and stop a wave of anti-globalization spreading through South America." Sadly, there probably millions who believe him. Political instability will lead to capital flight, leading to more poverty, leading to ...
Halloween spooks Chavez
President-for-life Hugo Chavez declared that Halloween is an example of the American "culture of terror." He explained that having kids dress up as witches "is contrary to our ways." See CNN.com. He always manages to stretch some thinly plausible argument -- in this case, the "menace of cultural imperialism" -- into something beyond absurd. I don't discount the sensitivity entirely, however. I was surprised to find that Peruvians were picking up on Halloween customs when I lived there several years ago.
October 24, 2005 [LINK]
Bolivians demand free trade
In one of those unusual twists, thousands of Bolivian workers marched to the U.S. embassy to demand, of all things, a free trade agreement! See the pro-democracy Publius Pundit blog (via Instapundit). The current U.S. law that exempts Andean countries from normal tariffs expires at the end of next year, and that would throw many Bolivians who work in textile and other manufacturing industries out of work. Earlier this month, State Department official Charles Shapiro urged that "Bolivia should resolve its internal problems prior to negotiating a free trade agreement." (See redbolivia.com.) He was referring to the impending elections, which many fear will be won by leftist coca-trafficking booster Evo Morales, who played a leading role in the downfall of the last two presidents of Bolivia. (Shapiro was U.S. ambassador to Venezuela until a year ago, and warned of a coup plot against Hugo Chavez earlier this year.) President Rodriguez declared today that he will not permit the electoral process to fail. The National Electoral Court set this Friday, the 28th, as the deadline for resolving the issue of how many seats each department (province) will have in the constitutional assembly.
Some people argue that the United States should not make domestic stability a condition for a free trade agreement, but should give encouragement to the pro-democracy forces by taking the risk and exhibiting confidence in Bolivia's ability to overcome the current crisis. Others argue that free trade agreements invariably benefit the wealthy, powerful countries more than the poor, weak ones. These two opposing arguments ironically reinforce each other. What very few people understand is that free trade yields the greatest benefits when countries embark upon that path of their own free will. Elections are one of the only means by which such popular will can be manifested, but ironically, foreign monitors aiming to ensure clean voting can undermine the legitimacy of such elections, as seen by populists.
Brazil rejects ban on guns
Brazilian voters decisively defeated a proposed law that would prohibit individuals from carrying firearms. The country has suffered a sharp increase in crime over the past year or two, and just like in the United States, many Brazilians think that restricting access to guns would curtail that trend. Many people have lost confidence that police can protect them. The police forces in Brazil have been overwhelmed by the outlaws, who have used automatic weapons and even rocket launchers in some bold robberies. "About 39,000 people in Brazil are killed by guns each year, compared with about 30,000 people in the United States..." See Washington Post and newsmax.com [updated links]. In most of Brazil's Spanish-speaking neighbors, gun ownership is severely restricted, or banned altogether.
Reelection in Colombia
The Constitutional Court gave preliminary approval to a constitutional amendment that would allow President Uribe to run for reelection next May. One member of that court accused another one of taking money in exchange for a vote of approval, sparking a fierce argument. Another ruling next month may block Uribe's bid for reelection, but he is very popular and is widely expected to sail through to victory. See CNN.com Many Latin American countries have lifted the ban on consecutive presidential terms in the last decade or so, with varying results. In some cases the incumbents abused their power and punished opponents; Argentina's Carlos Menem and Peru's Alberto Fujimori are two prime examples. In Brazil, the two terms of Fernando Henrique Cardoso were relatively free of corruption, and the country's institutons were strengthened.
Arms sales to Venezuela?
The U.S. government pressured Spanish aircraft company into halting the sale of C-295 aircraft to Venezuela, on the grounds that it contained sensitive U.S.-made technology. Recently, the U.S. persuaded Israel to halt the planned upgrading of the electronics in Venezuela's F-16 fighter jets, which are among the most capable in South America. See strategypage.com
October 21, 2005 [LINK]
Referendum in Ecuador?
The Supreme Court of Ecuador is reviewing President Alfredo Palacio's proposed referendum for a constitutional assembly, as a means for bypassing the legislative branch, which has stymied his initiatives. Since taking office after President Lucio Gutierrez was voted out of office by the Congress in the midst of a popular uprising in April, the new leader has been frustrated by opposition, and several of the cabinet officers he appointed have had to resign after being implicated in scandals. See CNN.com. Prospects for reestablishing political stability and advancing a coherent national development strategy seem farther away than ever. It's quite ironic for a country that used to export petroleum, but doesn't even have a national currency any more.
Mexico fears U.S. border patrols
The Mexican government expressed alarm over Texas Gov. Rick Perry's effort to tighten security along the border with Mexico, code-named "Operation Linebacker." It is feared that U.S. border patrols will lead to the militarization of the otherwise friendly border, and will violate the human rights of (undocumented) Mexican immigrants. The Foreign Relations Ministry said that Mexico "takes any threat to its national security or the region of North America with the greatest seriousness." See CNN.com.
Hurricane Wilma made a direct hit on Cozumel, the Caribbean paradise island that I visited with my late friend Joe Cash in 1985, when it was still mostly pristine and undeveloped. In Cancun, the overdeveloped coastal resort just to the north, thousands of tourists are seeking shelter in safe ground-level ballrooms.
Chavez "cries wolf" again
Speaking to a group of businessmen in Paris Thursday, Venezuelan President-for-life Hugo Chavez warned again that the United States is preparing to invade his country, in which case crude oil prices would soar, he said. He recently declared his desire to acquire nuclear technology, notwithstanding the fact that Venezuela is already a major energy exporter. See CNN.com. It's almost as though he wants to raise tensions in the region, practically begging for American aircraft carriers to sail toward Venezuelan shores just to rally popular support.
October 14, 2005 [LINK]
Mudslide: Tourists stranded at Machu Picchu
Heavy rains in the Andes Mountains caused mudslides that buried a section of railroad track near Machu Picchu, thereby stranding 1,400 tourists in the town of Aguas Calientes, located along the Vilcanota River about 3,000 feet below the archeological mecca. That train is the only way to get to the isolated site, as the steep mountain gorges make road building prohibitively difficult. The government hopes to evacuate some of the tourists with helicopters, and the track will probably be repaired within a week or two. The same thing happened just two weeks after Jacqueline and I went there in March 2004.
Floods in Costa Rica
Costa Rica has also been hit hard by flooding, though not as severely as in Guatemala or Mexico. Several towns near the Pacific coast have been evacuated, and even the provincial capital of Liberia, in the northwestern canton of Guanacaste, is on alert for possible flooding. When I was there in late February, it was extremely hot and dry.
In politics, former president Miguel Angel Rodriguez was released from house arrest after nearly a year. He has been charged with accepting bribes from the French telecommunications company Alcatel. It is remarkable that former presidents in the neighboring countries of Costa Rica and Nicaragua are both accused of corruption.
The recent heavy rains in the northeast U.S.A., Central America, and Peru, and the severe drought in the normally lush Amazon basin, make one wonder what's up with our terrestial atmosphere. Here in Virginia it was dry as a bone from late July until early October, and ever since the Rolling Stones came to town, it's been rainy, drizzly, or cloudy. What's up with that?
October 12, 2005 [LINK]
Mudslides in Guatemala
While U.S. media attention has focused on the terrible earthquake in Kashmir, another disaster closer to home has become progressively worse over the last few days. After the floods caused by Hurricane Stan last week, an earthquake in Guatemala on Friday triggered mudslides that killed over a thousand people, and possibly many more than that. The death toll is certain to exceed the number of American lives lost to Hurricane Katrina. The town of Panabaj near Lake Atitlan (a major tourist center) was completely wiped out, and rescue efforts have been abandoned. As a tragic legacy of the deep social distrust engendered by the long civil war, many Mayan Indians shunned Army troops that were on relief missions. Guatemala Today's Washington Post includes a dramatic photograph of devastating erosion in in hilly farmlands, illustrating how bad the situation is.
Nicaragua approves CAFTA
On Monday, the congress of Nicaragua voted 49-37 in favor of the Central America Free Trade Agreement, one of the few political victories that President Bolaños has won in recent months. His government has been besieged by a coalition of Sandinistas and a faction of Liberal Party members loyal to former President Aleman, and some call the present circumstances a "creeping coup." Several independent legislators joined with the pro-Bolaños faction to ratify the treaty. In order for this measure to have the intended positive effect on exports and employment, it is imperative for the U.S. Congress to follow through by passing legislation that slashes restrictions on imports from countries in that region. Will that cost U.S. jobs? Probably, but the alternative is increased illegal immigration.
Drought in Brazil
Several cities in the Amazon Basin have been declared disaster areas because of a severe drought that has made several tributaries unnavigable because the water level is so shallow. Supplies of fresh water and food have become scarce in many towns, because nearly all transportation in that region is by river boats. It is said to be the worst drought in 60 years.
Gas takeover in Bolivia
Army and police forces peacefully retook control of a natural gas installation in eastern Bolivia. Peasants had seized it to back up demands for road paving and land redistribution, interrupting gas shipments to Argentina for two days. Meanwhile, the government has decreed that private firms must increase their output of natural gas, which had been curtailed by some producers after they were subjected to special emergency taxes earlier this year.
October 6, 2005 [LINK]
U.S. warns Nicaraguan opposition
While visiting Nicaragua, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick told the leaders of the opposition coalition in Nicaragua -- consisting of the left-wing Sandinistas and the right-wing "Arnulfistas," who support disgraced ex-president Arnulfo Aleman -- to stop their campaign to oust President Enrique Bolaños, or else "There will be consequences in terms of their relations with the United States." This odd alliance of ideological opposites has been waging a "creeping coup" for the past few months, blatantly subverting democratic institutions. See CNN.com and Washington Post Zoellick also met with former Managua mayor Herty Lewites, who lost in a bloody power struggle with Daniel Ortega for control of the Sandinista party when I was visiting Managua in February. (See my Feb. 27 post from Granada.) Zoellick's uncharacteristically blunt language risks offending nationalistic sentiment, and raises the stakes in this showdown as Bolivia and other parts of Latin America have come under the shadow of insurrectionist-style politics, usually inspired by leftists. If Zoellick's trip is part of a serious effort by the U.S. government to engage in policy dialogue with Latin America, finding ways to collaborate on problems of mutual concern, it is a very good sign. If it is mostly for show, however, the initiative may backfire badly.
Lula stays on top in Brazil
In Brazil, President da Silva barely prevailed in a showdown with opponents as the Chamber of Delegates voted to choose one of his key allies as its new speaker. Aldo Rebelo, a former minister in Lula's cabinet and member of the Communist Party, narrowly defeated Jose Thomaz Nono, who had been the interim speaker. Lula thus managed to hold together a parliamentary coalition, as the fallout from the recent bribery scandals continues. See Washington Post. This represents a dramatic confrontation that may end up redefining the respective prerogatives of the executive branch and traditionally subordinate legislative branch in Brazil. If Congress gains the upper hand, however, the result may be policy incoherence unless the fractious political parties pull themselves together and enforce discipline on their members in the legislature.
Floods, volcanoes in Central America
A volcano erupted near the city of Santa Ana in northwestern El Salvador last week, and floods spawned by Hurricane Stan (originating in the Pacific) compounded the misery. Guatemala and the Chiapas region of southern Mexico also suffered terrible flooding as the storm headed north.
October 1, 2005 [LINK]
Rice visits Haiti
Condi Rice made a trip to Haiti on Tuesday, urging all parties to abide by democratic norms as the November 20 elections approach. As a precaution against violence, her trip was not announced until the day before she left. The question is whether any leader can take the place of ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who lives in exile in South Africa. He claims that the U.S. government forced him out of office in February 2004, and most of his followers believe it. The interim government has little authority, as warlords rule the streets at night. Without the presence of occupation forces from various Latin American countries, there might be a civil war. This, in turn, highlights the stiff challenge to the Bush strategy of promoting democratization as an antidote to extremism and terror. One wonders what combination of inducements and threats Secretary Rice made on the Haitian leaders, should they fail to carry out peaceful, free elections.
September 28, 2005 [LINK]
Multiculture: ¿Es éste un gran país, o qué? *
"In ethnically diverse Los Angeles, many immigrants find that learning Korean, Spanish or Mandarin is more important than English." See webindia123.com. (via Drudge) I have some anecdotal evidence to support that finding. "E pluribus unum" is fast fading as an ideal in the good ol' U.S.A. Social integration? That is so-o 1960s! Note that this news story comes from a source that focuses on matters of concern to India, where speaking English is a highly prized job skill.
* For you folks in Rio Linda, that's "Is this a great country or what?" in Spanish.
UPDATE: Linda Chavez, former Reagan administration official who now hosts a radio talk show in Washington, points out that the roots of the various social problems related to immigration in this country lie in the lack of a consistent federal policy on the matter. Exactly! This was in the context of GOP gubenatorial candidate Jerry Kilgore's criticism of public funding of a center for day laborers in Herndon, VA. Kilgore was right, but he only sees part of the big picture. It's too bad neither Democrat nor (most) Republican leaders in Washington are willing to risk losing votes in order to begain the necessary steps toward comprehensive reform. See Washington Post.
September 27, 2005 [LINK]
Earthquake in Peru
The temblor occurred on Sunday evening, registering magnitude 7.5 on the Richter scale. It was centered in the remote northern jungles, near the town of Moyobamba, and there seem to be few fatalities thus far. Thousands have been displaced, however, and aftershocks threaten to destroy the flimsy homes that most poor people live in.
Toledo the night owl
When he was running for president against Alberto Fujimori in 2000, Alejandro Toledo was scandalized when photographs of him in a compromising position with a woman were published in local newspapers. He claimed he had been drugged and kidnapped for blackmail purposes, which would not be surprising under the Fujimori government, which went to great lengths to defame opponents. Now, however, it is reported that his credit card records show that he has been a regular customer of the night clubs "of ill repute" where dirty deeds are done. See Peru.com (en español). Toledo was married to an ambitious Belgian woman, Eliane Karp, but they were not regarded as a close couple; indeed, Toledo was forced to acknowledge an illegitimate daughter.
Web site updates
I have begun redoing the photographs on the Latin America country pages. The separate photos have been merged together into a single montage. Also, the Latin America culture page has been updated with a new photo montage and more information on soccer and baseball. I plan to fully update the news chronologies for each country over the next month.
September 26, 2005 [LINK]
Foreign subversion in Bolivia
Hugo Chavez is now filling the role that Fidel Castro used to play in the Cold War, making American presidents paranoid about what he is or isn't doing to stir up trouble elsewhere in Latin America. After accusing the United States of planning to invade his country during his visit to the United Nations last week, he was interviewed by Lally Weymouth for the Washington Post. Chavez's responses were typically inconsistent, calling the U.S. government (under the Bush administration) a "terrorist organization," but also saying that he could work with Bush. He was unabashed in his support for leftist revolutionary movements throughout Latin America, especially El Salvador, Nicargua, and Bolivia. Indeed, it is becoming increasingly obvious that his involvement in Bolivia goes far beyond moral support; his petro-dollars are being used to systematically undermine the government in La Paz. As a result, there is now a very real chance that the upcoming election in December will be won by the leftist leader of the coca growers, Evo Morales, whose "Movement Toward Socialism" played a leading role in forcing two elected presidents to resign in the last three years. It is an extremely tense situation, and some wonder whether the election will be held at all. On Friday the Constitutional Tribunal ruled that legislative seats must be apportioned according to the 2001 census, favoring the fast-growing province of Santa Cruz, to the detriment of Morales, whose support is centered in the highlands. Bolivia-born blogger Miguel Centellas got the BBC to correct their story, which wrongly implied the court's ruling was arbitrary and motivated by hostility to Morales. For some deeper background on the veritable communist conspiracy (!) in Bolivia, see American Thinker. (via Instapundit)
So, what can the United States do about Chavezian subversion? In today's Washington Post, Jackson Diehl contrasts the high profile of Chavez with the quiet pleadings of Peru's Toledo and Colombia's Uribe, the other two Latin American presidents to speak at the United Nations. He concludes:
But they also have a point: The Bush administration would have a lot more impact if it behaved as if the United States, rather than Venezuela, was the hemisphere's economic leader.
Ouch. Diehl has a point as far as the lack of active U.S. engagement in the region, but no one should be under the illusion that we can spend our way out of the security threat via foreign aid. That's usually a very inefficient and corruption-prone tool of development, in any case. Chavez illustrates perfectly why much of Latin America is trapped in deep poverty: Illiberal economic policies and institutions that stifle entrepreneurial wealth creation. More generally, the fact that a regime like his could emerge in a country that has such bounteous natural resources says a lot about the limits of the classical liberal approach to political economy in the Third World. Dependency theorists used to argue that trade between wealthy industrialized countries and poor material-exporting countries tended to reinforce existing inequalities in real income levels, but this fell out of favor after Asian countries figured out how to achieve development via the (selective) use of capitalist tools. It ought to tell us something that nearly all oil-exporting countries in the world today have corrupt governments, with persistent widespread poverty, and their societies are mired in deep hatred and resentment. No World Bank program is going to change that pathology. What's worse, as long as the U.S. government is constrained by domestic electoral realities (cheap gasoline!) to maintain trade relations with such quasi-rogue regimes, the dangerous status quo is likely to continue.
Anti-trade protest in Colombia
Speaking of the limits of the classical liberal political economy in the Third World, there was a large protest against the proposed free trade agreement with Andean countries in Colombia on Thursday. See CNN.com. What's ironic about this proposed pact is that the Andean Group countries were once among the most determined to pursue regional economic integration without major trade ties to the United States. The governments of Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia are under heavy domestic pressure to deliver quick economic results, making these talks very crucial.
Drug money in Mexican churches
President Fox harshly criticized Bishop Ramon Godinez said the Catholic Church is not responsible for checking to see where the money they receive in offerings comes from. As in Colombia and other countries plagued by drug traffic, some churches received large amounts of narco-dollars from traffickers who seek legitimacy and social acceptance. Pope Benedict XVI made it clear that accepting dirty money fosters a climate of violence and lawlessness, but it remains to be seen whether local churches in poor Latin American countries can be persuaded to shun drug money. See CNN.com.
September 17, 2005 [LINK]
Illegal immigration in Brazil
Much like the United States, Brazil is beginning to face up to a growing threat of organized crime (mostly narcotics trafficking) connected to illegal immigration. There is as yet no clear link to terrorism, but the mere potential makes it a national security issue to Brazilian officials. Some Peruvians and Chinese were arrested in a series raids in which U.S. agents participated as observers. This is another headache for President da Silva, whose popularity ratings have dropped as the result of bribery scandals, meaning that he may face an uphill climb when he runs for reelection a year from now.
Independence day in Costa Rica
I didn't realized it at the time, but Thursday (the 15th) was Costa Rica's independence day. Presidente Pacheco pleaded for national consensus to enable the country to achieve economic advance. He also declared the torch to be the national symbol, in a gesture aimed at rallying nationalist spirit. Recent polls suggest that Costa Ricans are becoming deeply disillusioned with the country's political system, which is among the most successful in Latin America. In my view, the country's sluggish economy, which depends heavily on tourist dollars, is not likely to improve as long as the traditionally protectionist welfare state policies continue.
Presidents speak at United Nations
Being geographically isolated from the rest of the world, Latin Americans pay special attention to international meetings, especially the opening session of the United Nations each September. Predictably, Veneuzela's Hugo Chavez took the opportunity to denounce U.S. imperialism.
September 13, 2005 [LINK]
Hijacked flight in Colombia
A turboprop airplane with 25 people aboard, including a member of Congress, was hijacked and forced to land at Bogota. After a few hours of negotiations, the hijackers surrendered, and no one was hurt. It turns out it had nothing to do with politics or the civil war, but was merely a young man and his father, who had been disabled by a policeman's bullet many years ago and was demanding compensation. They smuggled hand grenades aboard the aircraft, eluding detection because the man's wheel chair could not pass through the X-ray machine.
Former President Julio Cesar Turbay, who served from 1978 to 1982, died at the age of 89. Although he was a member of the Liberal Party, he endorsed the constitutional amendment that will -- pending a Supreme Court ruling -- allow the incumbent President Alvaro Uribe to run for reelection next year.
The Latin American main page now includes a list of the upcoming elections in Latin America.
Chile remembers 9/11
No, not the terrorist attack launched by Al Qaeda in 2001, but the violent military coup launched by General Augusto Pinochet in 1973. At least 100 demonstrators were arrested, and one was killed, during a march to protest the coup that took place 30 years ago. Pinochet is still a free man, but is frail and might yet be prosecuted for the heinous abuses that he oversaw as leftists were purged after he took over.
August 24, 2005 [LINK]
Pat Robertson vs. Hugo Chavez
The often-wacky televangelist from Virginia Beach is at it again, opining that the United States should consider assassinating Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez before he is able to do us harm by collaborating with terrorists. (Is that what Jesus would do?) The threat posed by Chavez is real, but his most likely victims in the near term are other countries in Latin America, not the United States. Robertson's words were like sweet music to Chavez, who needs periodic evidence of U.S. malicious designs in order to rally popular support and justify his authoritarian regime. The strong disavowals from the State Department were appropriate but counted for absolutely nothing among leftist-nationalist circles in Latin America, where Uncle Sam is seen as a demon. See Washington Post. I've watched Robertson's "700 Club" a few times, and most of it is pretty good: accurate news reporting, though with a focus on topics of interest to evangelical Christians, and a variety of lively features, much like the "Today" show or "Good Morning America," but with a more wholesome "flavor." But when Pat starts to talk, all bets are off...
Plane crash in Peru
The fact that at least 57 of the 98 passengers and crew survived the crash of a jet in the Peruvian jungles seems to have been a miracle. The survivors said there was storm-induced turbulence as the plane prepared to land near the town of Pucallpa, but there was no warning of the impending disaster. Those who escaped the burning wreckage had to wade through swamps before being rescued. See CNN.com.
UPDATE: Here's a first-hand account of the crash: perucrew.blogspot.com (via Instapundit).
August 20, 2005 [LINK]
Oil protest in Ecuador
The Ecuadoran Army is struggling to regain control of petroleum wells and pipeline facilities in the eastern jungles of the country, after demonstrators forced a major shutdown of oil production to back up demands that more oil money be spent on infrastructure and jobs. On Wednesday the government declared a state of emergency, and to the defense minister resigned. See BBC. Ecuador has experienced several political crises in recent years, but those struggles were confined to the capital city Quito, for the most part. Unlike most of its neighbors, Ecuador has only rarely had widespread political violence. In light of recent turmoil in Bolivia, Colombia, and Venezuela, there is a very real possibility that social conflict in South America is becoming a truly transnational phenomenon for the first time.
August 17, 2005 [LINK]
Rumsfeld visits Paraguay, Peru
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is making his third trip to Latin America in the past year. The purpose is to improve relations with Latin American democracies, reverse the trend toward political instability, and fight terrorism and drug trafficking. In Paraguay, where he was met with a small group of anti-U.S. protesters, he questioned the involvement of Cuba and Venezuela in Bolivia's recent turmoil, urging neighboring countries to act in support of Bolivia's imperiled democracy. Paraguay seldom makes news headlines, but its thinly-guarded border with Argentina and Brazil has long been plagued with large-scale smuggling of drugs and sundry contraband goods, and Middle East terrorist groups such as Hamas are said to be getting funding from this illicit traffic. Today Rumsfeld is visiting Peru, where President Toledo has reversed his decision to name a political ally to the post of foreign minister, which led to the resignation of the cabinet. Toledo's government is is no position to undertake any major policy initiatives at the moment. Rumsfeld's visits are a good sign that the United States is attentive to the overlooked zone of instability in the southern hemisphere, but a visit by President Bush would accomplish much more.
Boat sinks off Colombian shore
At least 100 people died, and only a few survived, when a boat from Ecuador carrying passengers in the cargo hold sank in rough seas off the coast of Colombia. They were apparently headed toward the United States.
August 16, 2005 [LINK]
Prison riots in Guatemala
At least 31 prisoners were killed in riots sparked by gang rivalries in prisons in Guatemala on Monday. Prisoners used cell phones to launch coordinated simultaneous attacks in several prisons. Honduras and El Salvador have suffered deadly gang-related prison riots in recent years, and the problem is spreading across borders. The largest of the Central American gangs, Mara Salvatrucha, is responsible for the recent surge in vicious knife attacks against Latinos in the United States.
Plane crash in Venezuela
[After midnight on Tuesday] a West Caribbean Airways jetliner heading from Panama to Martinique suffered engine failure and crashed in western Venezuela, close to the border with Colombia. None of the 160 passengers and crew survived. This was the deadliest plane crash in Venezuela's history and came only one day after a jet crash that killed 121 people in Greece.
Chile reforms constitution
Last week the Chilean Congress passed an amendment to the constitution that puts an end to the immunities of the armed forces and restores full civilian authority over the entire government and state apparatus. This rebuke to the conditions stipulated by former dictator Augusto Pinochet as he gave up power marks the end of the transition from authoritarian rule to liberal democracy in what is now considered one of the most successful countries in Latin America, even though it remains haunted by the state terror of the Pinochet era. The National Security Council, which Pinochet had created in the 1970s as a strong centralized tool of maintaining order and suppressing dissent, will be transformed into an advisory body. The presidential term was also reduced from six to four years, with the prohibition against immediate re-election being kept in place. Legal proceedings against Pinochet continue on an intermittent basis.
August 14, 2005 [LINK]
Cabinet crisis in Peru
President Alejandro Toledo received a sharp rebuke after naming his political ally Fernando Olivera, as foreign minister. In protest, Prime Minister Carlos Ferrero submitted his resignation, thereby obliging the rest of the cabinet to resign. Ferrero objects to Olivera's support for allowing more cultivation of coca, which is one of the issues that has torn Bolivia apart in recent years. Ferrero may aspire to run for a congressional seat next year, in which case he would have had to resign by October in any case. See CNN.com. Peru is rather unique in the Americas, having adopted the "quasi-presidential" constitutional system of Fifth Republic France. The president is assisted by a prime minister, who is in charge of formulating detailed policies and getting legislation passed. It doesn't always work like it's supposed to... With his popularity remaining at single-digit levels, Toledo will probably be remembered as the president with the longest "lame duck" tenure in Peru's history. The fact that his government has survived for so long without a serious coup attempt in spite of the lack of popular support is perhaps a testament to the strength of the country's political institutions.
Lula apologizes in Brazil
President da Silva apologized for the bribery scandal that has ruined the coalition led by his Worker's Party. With a fragmented political party system, Brazil can ill afford such a breakdown in party alignments. Da Silva may end up having to rule by decree if the legislative branch cannot function.
August 6, 2005 [LINK]
"Failed States Index"
The journal Foreign Policy and the Fund for Peace have joined to establish a ranking system to signal which countries are likely to fail, i.e., suffer a collapse of authority. They include 12 "indicators of instability" such as demographic pressures and delivery of public services. In Latin America, Haiti, Colombia, and the Dominican Republica rank as "high risk," Venezuela, Guatemala, Paraguay, and Peru rank as "medium risk," and Honduras, Ecuador, and Cuba rank as "low risk." Oddly, Bolivia is not even mentioned. See foreignpolicy.com. Those rankings seem quite out of order to me; Peru certainly ought to be ranked among some of the more stable states, whereas Ecuador and Bolivia ought to be ranked among those states "on the precipice." I worked on measurements of state effectiveness as part of the research for my doctoral dissertation, putting less emphasis on transitory social conditions and more on economic fundamentals such as monetary strength and debt burden. For the purposes of better understanding the contemporary global security situation, what is required is a solid theory that explains the relationship between "rogue regimes" (such as North Korea or Iraq under Saddam) and "failed states" (such as Somalia or Afghanistan).
August 6, 2005 [LINK]
Diplomatic flap in Bolivia
Today is Bolivia's national holiday, and folks down there are celebrating the 180th anniversary of their independence from Spain. The country is in very shaky conditions since the uprising that induced former President Carlos Mesa to resign in June, but the good news is that tensions have eased slightly, averting an armed rebellion or civil war. One sign of the extreme fragility of the government is that the finance minister resigned just because he suggested that Evo Morales, head of the coca-lobby "Movement Toward Socialism," is tied to Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. This would not surprise any impartial observer of either Bolivia or Venezuela. Analysts in Bolivia warn that the special elections later this year will result in a fragmented, ineffective government unless some of the political parties can join forces and present consolidated lists of candidates for the national assembly.
Violence in Mexico worsens
The U.S. Consulate in Nuevo Laredo, across the Rio Grande from Laredo, Texas, had to be closed for several days because violence perpetrated by drug lords had made it too dangerous. Policemen were abducted and later released by gangs in Acapulco. Automatic weapons, hand grenades, and even rocket launchers are being used, suggesting that the narcoterrorist threat that has plagued South America for two decades is already on our own doorstep. The dire warnings of Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-CO) and Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) about the need to make our southern border more secure cannot be ignored much longer. Inasmuch as one of the principle objectives of NAFTA was to expand economic opportunities in Mexico, obviating the need for a "Berlin wall" along the Mexican frontier, the broader question is what can be done to restart the process of economic liberalization that has stalled in Mexico.
Central America earthquake
A small earthquake (6.3 Richter scale) rattled southern Nicaragua and northwestern Costa Rica before dawn Wednesday. Damage was minor. I was trevelling in those areas earlier this year.
July 28, 2005 [LINK]
Independence Day in Peru
Today Peru celebrates the anniversary of its independence from Spain, in 1823. The weary political climate of the country is well expressed by the tagline from a story in today's El Comercio (en español): "In spite of forecasts, we've arrived at the final year of the Toledo government." President Toledo's performance has been so poor that many expected an insurrection or coup d'etat against him, as has happened in neighboring Ecuador and Bolivia on multiple occasions in recent years. Thankfully, Peru has strong enough institutions to resist abrupt surges of political passions. Toledo has been a big disappointment to the liberal internationalists who believe that earnest good will can suffice to achieve cooperation, but I never held out much hope for him. He is a shallow, politically naive pretender, possessing neither strategic vision nor tactical cunning. Peru has basically been marking time since he was inaugurated four years ago. As the first-round presidential elections scheduled for next April approach, the big question is whether Peru's moderate political parties and leaders can forge an electoral alliance to hold off the challenge posed by Alan Garcia and his Apristas. The cataclysmic failure of his government in the late 1980s has been forgotten by many people, while the remarkable achievements of the disgraced Fujimori government are now too uncomfortable to acknowledge without calling into question the value of democracy.
July 28, 2005 [LINK]
CAFTA passes, barely
The House passed the CAFTA bill by a razor-thin vote of 217-215 just after midnight last night. I stayed up to follow the roll call on C-SPAN, but the last dozen or so House members were tardy, and the the telecast went strangely blank for several minutes, and when it returned the tally had been finalized. This was a big relief for anyone who believes in Inter-American cooperation, but it was only a first timid step in that direction. As yesterday's Washington Post pointed out, the economic impact of CAFTA will be smaller than either proponents or opponents claim; its main direct effect will be of a political nature, reinforcing the fragile bonds between those countries and the United States. As shown on my Presidential chronology page, most governments in Central America have been moderately conservative in recent years. Some of them are under very heavy pressure from leftist parties, most notably Nicaragua, where Daniel Ortega's Sandinistas are doing all they can to sabotage democracy and capitalism. These die-hard opponents of freedom seem to share the agenda of the anti-globalization movement, those nihilistic misfits who try to wreak chaos whenever there is a summit of Western leaders.
The job of encouraging trade within the Northern Hemisphere is far from finished, however. The countries of Central America are simply too small and too poor to adequately regulate economic activity within their own borders, and they could vastly improve the overall prosperity and working conditions by encouraging a consumer-goods industrial sector that would take advantage of economies of scale. My trip to that region last February and March convinced me that Central America must pursue an economic union, tearing down all remaining barriers among themselves and allowing unhindered transit within the region, much as Europe has done. That is something they must do on their own, however, and the United States should stay out. As for the grandiose proposed "Free Trade Area of the Americas," I remain deeply skeptical.
One of the sad aspects of this vote was that it was cast on such strongly partisan lines. House Speaker Tom DeLay, who has been under political siege for the last several months, assured everyone that he had enough votes for passage, so this may count as vindication for his continuing effectiveness. As I wrote on June 22, Nancy Pelosi told the Democrat caucus that "A vote for CAFTA ... was a vote to keep the GOP in the majority." By viewing the issue in partisan terms, the Democrat leadership has cast its lot with the nihilistic anti-globalization movement. So much for progress.
July 20, 2005 [LINK]
Chavez stirs trouble in Venezuela
President-for-life Hugo Chavez has been raising tensions in Venezuela in recent weeks. During the July 5 (!) Independence Day speech, he accused the United States of plotting to topple his regime, citing the discovery of documents with plans for "Operation Balboa." He is milking the Bush administration's clumsy response to the coup attempt against him in April 2002, stoking xenophobic paranoia. Flush with petro-dollars, he seems to be flexing his muscles in a bid for a more prominent international role. He has hinted at cutting off oil shipments to the U.S., which buys over 60 percent of Venezuela's exports, but it is unlikely his country could survive long without oil revenues, so it's probably an empty threat. Venezuelan police forces are not cooperating in anti-narcotics efforts in recent months, and tensions with neighboring Colombia, whose guerrilla movements have received implicit support from Chavez, remain high. A Venezuelan Foreign Ministry Official said the U.S. could instantly repair relations merely by showing her government "respect." See Washington Post. Yesterday he lashed out at Cardinal Rosalio Castillo Lara for having labeled him a dictator. See CNN.com. The real question is whether his rhetorical expressions of sympathy for Islamo-fascist terrorists has been matched by any concrete support or providing safe haven. The lack of much recent news on this front could be interpreted either way.
UPDATE: Gateway Pundit has an in-depth report about anti-Chavez demonstrations in Caracas, complete with photographs. No doubt this was all planned in Langley! (via Instapundit)
Web site updates
I have reformatted all of the country pages and topical background pages in the Latin America section of this Web site. The chronologies on each country page are being condensed, sifting out the less significant "chaff." Some of those entries with commentaries will be retroactively moved to the Archives section, in standard blog format. There is one new page that will be very useful as a reference source: Presidential chronology, which lists the heads of state for all twenty countries since 1980, color-coded according to political leaning.
July 15, 2005 [LINK]
Global warming in Costa Rica
ABC's Nightline program had a report on global warming last night. To my surprise, much of it was filmed in the cloud forests of Monteverde National Park in Costa Rica, and there was a brief clip of a Violet saberwing. We didn't go to that park, but we did encounter similar fog-shrouded habitat at Poas Volcano. Scientists report that a number of tropical plant and animal species are in decline in Costa Rica, presumably because of global warming. (Pollution or other factors may play a part as well.) In an ideal world, more folks who are concerned about conserving nature would recognize that the only hope for restraining consumption of hydrocarbons and forest products lies in making prices reflect scarcity, either by taxation or by removing implicit subsidies. In the real world, much of that concern is wasted on utopian campaigns that ignore the way that human beings actually behave. Hence the ungodly tragedy of extinction.
July 12, 2005 [LINK]
Hospital fire in Costa Rica
At least eighteen people died after a fire broke out in the Calderon Guardia Hospital in downtown San Jose Costa Rica last night. Most of the fourth and fifth floors were burned out, and many patients who were physically incapacitated were trapped. Somehow, they managed to keep the hospital operating during the fire, so that some victims were treated on site, although many had to be transferred to other hospitals in the capital city. See Tico Times Online (not a permalink). That tragedy has special meaning to Jacqueline and me because we stayed at a lodging establishment (Kap's Place, very nice and friendly) located only two blocks from that hospital, which we walked by at least 15 times during our vacation last February and March. There is a bakery right across the street where we used to snack, and we saw many doctors and nurses eating there. Costa Rica has one of the most advanced social services sectors in all of Latin America, and the "Ticos" take pride in their country's medical and technical know-how.
July 8, 2005 [LINK]
Bolivia plans new elections
The Bolivian congress voted 80-27 on Tuesday to hold new national elections in December and hold a constitutional referendum next July, in an effort to stave off insurrection and save what's left of their democracy. The fact that the terms of incumbent congresspersons will be shorted by a year and a half, contrary to what the constitution provides for, obviously counts for much less than preserving social peace. The opposition consists mainly of dirt-poor Indian miners and peasants who are led (and paid) by coca growers. Your drug dollars at work! In mid-June U.N. envoy Jose Antonio Ocampo met with new president Eduardo Rodriguez in an effort to bolster the new government and the country's shaky democratic institutions. That will take a lot of dollars and a lot of luck.
Cabinet shakeup in Brazil
President "Lula" da Silva has named a new labor minister as part of a cabinet shuffle that he hopes will lay to rest the wave of corruption charges leveled against his government. It is noteworthy that da Silva, as well as Mexico's Vicente Fox, were present at the G-8 Summit in Scotland. That seems to represent an effort by the "elite eight" to reach out to the middle-level powers of the Third World. That's a noble gesture, but it does little more than dilute the already-weak common interests that might make the G-8 an efficient agent of global action.
Postage stamp outrage in Mexico
Who writes letters or collects stamps anymore? Besides me, I mean. Well, somebody must, because a set of commemorative stamps in Mexico featuring caricatures of African folks has sparked anger in the U.S. black community again. The small black minority in Mexico has expressed displeasure as well. Cultural standards are much different in Latin America, however. The sort of Uncle Tom imagery that no one here would even dream of showing in public is accepted as normal south of the Rio Grande. Perhaps that will start to change as a result of globalization.
There has been a lot of controversy in Colombia lately about vigilante militias, and whether they should be prosecuted for murders. The war against FARC guerrilla-terrorists has now spread south to the border with Ecuador, and the government of President Uribe has complained to Ecuador that it's not doing enough to control the guerrillas who take sanctuary on the Ecuador side. As if the fragile government of Ecuador is even in much of a position to do anything about it...
June 22, 2005 [LINK]
CAFTA ... and party politics
The Central American Free Trade Agreement is nearing a showdown on Capitol Hill, and President Bush will have to spend a lot more "political capital" (and pork) to get it through Congress. That's right, yet another issue of vital importance to the nation is being reduced to a political football. For many years, I have been in favor of liberalized trade among the countries of the Western Hemisphere. I supported NAFTA, which yielded strong mutual overall benefits to both Mexico and the United States, though it must be acknowledged that the disruptive social effects on either side of the Rio Grande have yet to be fully reckoned. The point was that the two countries already were trading heavily with each other, in a classic symbiosis, and in a real sense NAFTA merely institutionalized and rationalized ongoing trends. The countries of Central America are another matter, however: Except for Costa Rica, they are much poorer and more politically unstable, raising doubts about whether free trade with the United States would produce greater economic wealth or just more political friction. The Dominican Republic is also included in the agreement, but not turmoil-wracked Haiti. For the PRO side in this debate, see the U.S. Trade Representative, and for the CON side, see StopCAFTA.org. I remain skeptical of the proposed grandiose "Free Trade Area of the Americas," which would run up against sharp differences of national interest, within South America itself, but I believe that further institutionalizing economic relations between the U.S. and its (relatively close) neighbors would serve a compelling mutual interest. I find the provisions for stricter controls on pollution and higher environmental standards to be among the strongest reasons for favoring it. How else are we North Americans going to have influence over the fate of the ecologically precious rain forests and beaches of that region? As for the leftist charge that this is all just a sell-out to corporate interests, I would submit that the character, competence, and public-mindedness of Special Trade Representative Robert Zoellick should allay any such fears.
Earlier this year I was travelling in two of the countries where free trade with the U.S. is most controversial. Costa Rica has a long tradition of state management of the economy, emulating the European social democratic model, and its social stability might well be put at risk by being exposed to the rigors of free trade. I saw a lot of political activity against the free trade pact in San Jose, and the most academics there seem to be against it as well. Meanwhile, Nicaragua has been undergoing a serious political crisis in recent months, due in part to controversies over trade and relations with the United States. The Sandinista party of former president Daniel Ortega has been putting the squeeze on the conservative government of Enrique Bolaños in what some are calling a "creeping coup." The CAFTA showdown also coincides with increased complaints about the flow of illegal immigrants across the border from Mexico. One of the fundamental objectives of NAFTA was to minimize the gap in economic opportunity between the two giants, and the shortcoming in that department has to be considered one of the biggest disappointments with NAFTA.
But what about the domestic front? As the dust settles on the compromise that avoided the "nuclear option" in the Senate, indications are that partisan divisiveness is as deep as ever. As reported in the Washington Post, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi strongly warned her side of the aisle not to vote for CAFTA because "A vote for CAFTA, she said, was a vote to keep the GOP in the majority." She gives the impression of caring not in the least whether the agreement is in the best interess of the country. Meanwhile, the Republicans are inclined to pacify their base in the key state of Florida, which makes them prone to continue coddling the ultra-protected sugar cane industry. The June 18 Economist magazine opines, "Mr Bush must defeat the sugar lobby. The pro-trade Democrats must stand up to their short-sighted leaders." They interpret the Democrats' obstructionism as a reflection of being "intoxicated with their success, thus far, at stymieing Mr Bush's agenda on social security reform." Given the climate in Washington these days, trying to assess the relative merits of CAFTA, apart from the calculations of partisan gains and losses, may be futile. Moderate Republicans in the Senate such as John Warner had better pay heed to the fact that their gestures of bipartisan cooperation are not being reciprocated.
This would be a good opportunity to remind everyone of one of the most praiseworthy aspects of the Clinton presidency: a solid commitment to freer international trade, as exemplified by NAFTA and the WTO.
June 21, 2005 [LINK]
Corruption tarnishes Lula
The chief of staff of the Brazilan cabinet, Jose Dirceu, resigned last Thursday after being accused of running a bribery scheme by which legislators were paid monthly "allowances" to vote along with the Brazilian Labor Party of President "Lula" da Silva. Brazil has been hit by a crime wave in recent months, and this case further undermines the aura of success that Lula had enjoyed since taking office nearly two and a half years ago. Generally speaking, Brazil has somewhat less of a problem with corruption than most other Latin American countries, but there is also less of a reformist tradition than elsewhere in the region. In other words, small-scale corruption is routine but usually doesn't get out of hand. What this case illustrates is the fragmented nature of the political party system in that giant country, where policy decisions are usually made in the executive branch because the Congress is too bogged down in factionalism to get much done. It may also suggest that Lula's effectiveness as a national leader is on the wane.
June 10, 2005 [LINK]
Bolivia on brink of anarchy
President Carlos Mesa submitted his resignation on Monday, and after relocating to the less-chaotic city of Sucre, Bolivia's congress voted to select a successor late on Thursday. The head of the Bolivian Supreme Court, Eduardo Rodriguez, has been named as president on an interim basis. The president of the Senate, Hormando Vaca Diez, was next in line for succession but was rejected by protesters as just another "puppet of the oligarchy." See today's Washington Post or CNN.com. Bolivia has no vice president currently because Mesa assumed the presidency in his capacity as vice president after Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada resigned in the face of violent protests in October 2003, and no successor is named for the vice president under the Bolivian constitution. It is doubtful that the protesters will be pacified by the selection of the relatively apolitical judge Rodriguez, inasmuch as their leader, Evo Morales, seeks nothing less than a fundamental regime change and radical social reform. His "Movement Toward Socialism" party has a distinctly leftist ideology but is more dangerous because of the fact that it represents the coca growers, who want to abolish all restrictions on trade in the raw material used to make cocaine. Bolivia is one of the only countries in the world with two capital cities. Sucre was the capital from independence until the end of the 19th Century, after which the executive and legislative branches relocated to the boom city of La Paz. the Supreme Miners and other Indians are now marching from La Paz to Sucre to press their demands for immediate new elections and for nationalization of natural gas. For a perspective from a blogger born in Bolivia but studying in the United States, see the recent posts by Miguel Centellas. Bolivia is riven by fierce regional rivalries, and there is a strong separatist movement in the eastern department (province) of Santa Cruz, where most of the hydrocarbon deposits are located. The "cambas" speak with a dialect that is closer to Argentina than to the rest of Bolivia.
Given the insurrections that have led to extra-constitutional changes of government in both Ecuador and Bolivia this year, many people wonder, What about Peru? President Toledo's popularity rating remains in the single digits, and while viewing Latin American television while in Northern Virginia for a couple days, I saw a farcical staged show of support for Toledo as he returned from a visit to some provincial city. A blogger named Adam Isacson worries about the deep discontent and poverty in that "keystone" nation of South America. (via Randy Paul) That is hardly news, however: most Peruvians carry ancient, bitter grudges on their shoulders, venting their deep frustrations on other classes (rich white pitucos or poor dark cholos), or else blaming Spain, Chile, or the U.S.A., as circumstances dictate. Nevertheless, I would not discount another upsurge of violent protest in Peru in coming months. I witnessed a protest march in Cuzco in March 2004. (CLICK TO SEE PHOTO.) There was a mutiny by Peruvian police officers in January (see my blog post), but it was quickly put down. Peru's economy has been performing well enough for the last couple years that any revolutionary social movement there would be very unlikely to attract a wide following.
OAS summit in Florida
Events in Bolivia could not have happened at a worse time for President Bush, who spoke to an OAS summit in Fort Lauderdale this week. He declared (in Spanish) that freedom is not negotiable ("La libertad no es negociable."), a noble sentiment that unfortunately does not count for much in the amoral, cutthroat realm of global politics. See Washington Post.) Likewise, the President's ritualistic urgings for Latin American countries to adopt free market policies seem jarringly out of touch with reality in that part of the world, where both democracy and capitalism have fallen on hard times. The fixation on the mischief wrought by Hugo Chavez in Venezuela may have distracted the administration's attention from more urgent crises. Colombia and Peru are not doing well, either. Argentina has emerged, ironically, as a bastion of stability, but that's only relative.
June 3, 2005 [LINK]
Violence in Bolivia: coup?
Peasants in Bolivia have launched yet another round of protests and roadblocks that have paralyzed the capital La Paz and much of the country. The protesters' stated aim is to force the government to nationalize all the oil and natural gas deposits, but it is basically a bid for power by the coca-grower's party led by Evo Morales, "Movement Toward Socialism." Along with Ecuador, Bolivia is in the forefront of a troubling trend toward reliance upon violent mass mobilizations to effect policy change in Latin America, signalling deep disillusion with democratic procedures. There are signs that the Bolivian armed forces are losing patience with the inability of civilian leaders to maintain order. Today President Carlos Mesa spoke to the nation, announcing the convocation of a national assembly to deal with the energy issue, and a referendum to be held in October. If he's still in office by then, that is. It is virtually certain that any such policy concessions will only whet the opposition's appetite for more power. See cnn.com
Last month there were many news reports in Peru about increased tensions with Chile, nominally over the issue of airline ownership, but at the root of it is the old grudge over Chile's conquest of Peruvian land in the 19th Century. Ex-(and future?) president Alan Garcia called the controversy with Chile a mere "smokescreen" concocted by the hapless Toledo government to deflect attention from its own scandals. President Toledo met with Chilean presdient Ricardo Lagos at a summit meeting of Arab and Latin American heads of state in Brazil. Chile is less concerned with diplomatic tensions right now than with resolving its own terrible political wounds stemming from the dirty war of the 1970s. Several retired military officers from the Pinochet dictatorship may stand trial, but Pinochet himself will probably not be held accountable as long as he is alive.
A one-year old girl in Peru who was born with her legs fused together -- "mermaid's syndrome" -- underwent surgery yesterday to correct the defect. The operation was broadcast live on national television, raising complaints about medical ethics. It was deemed a success, but further corrective surgery will be required.
Will L.A. secede?
Antonio Villaraigosa, recently elected to be mayor of Los Angeles said Wednesday that Mexico will play an important role in shaping his policies. Last week he criticized Governor Schwarzenegger and said the border with Mexico should be seen as an opportunity, not as a threat. See El Universal Online (in Spanish), via newsmax.com.
We are at the beginning of an era in which, instead of closing borders like Governor Schwarzenegger said, we should see it as an opportunity. ... I propose to turn this city into the Venice of the 21st Century, into the city of promise.
He also favors a "more humane" immigration policy and opposes the use of the L.A.P.D. as an arm of the border patrol. Venice, of course, was an independent city-state during the Renaissance. Interesting model to emulate...
May 17, 2005 [LINK]
Zorro se mete la pata*
President Fox of Mexico chose a bad time to insult folks of African descent in this country, saying that people from his country who sneak across the U.S. border are only filling jobs that "not even blacks" would do. Aside from implicit racism -- which is perfectly normal in much of Latin America -- his comment highlights the logical fallacy that often arises in political debates: falsely construing people's rational behavioral adaptations to faulty public policies as indicative of individual moral weakness. You know, polemics over welfare dependence and all that. For market-oriented gringos like me who held out high hopes for his presidency, Fox has been a big disappointment. One must be careful when using the Mexican word often translated as disappointment, decepcionado. When Bush said he was disappointed in Mexico's lack of support for U.S. policy against Saddam Hussein in 2003, it caused a big public uproar in Mexico, because decepcionado connotes lack of trust.
Inside Mexico, the biggest recent news is that corruption charges against the mayor of Mexico City, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, have been dropped, meaning that he will be eligible to run for president next year. He is popular and widely expected to win. Now that Fox's conservative National Action Party is in decline, the big question is, What will the old guard Revolutionary Institutional Party do about Lopez Obrador and his rising Party of the Democratic Revolution?
* Translation: "Fox puts his foot (in his mouth)"
April 20, 2005 [LINK]
Ecuador Congress ousts Gutierrez
¡Qué rápido! After a few weeks of mounting protests, the Congress of Ecuador voted to remove President Lucio Gutierrez from the office today, replacing him with Vice President Alfredo Palacio. The Congress actually had to flee and reassemble in another, safer building before the 62-0 vote to remove the president was taken; the other 38 members were presumably taking cover. An FM radio station is said to have played a major role in coordinating the opposition forces' campaign against Gutierrez. The military pledged support for the new leader, who applauded the end of the "dictatorship," proclaiming "Today the people of Ecuador have decided to re-found the republic." Whether this change will succeed in quelling the street chaos remains to be seen. Ecuador right now reminds me of the Corcyran civil war described in Thucydides' The Pelopponesian War, revealing the bestial nature of man when unfettered by a strong government.
April 19, 2005 [LINK]
Mexico City Mayor under fire
The mayor of Mexico City, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, was stripped of his immunity from criminal prosecution. He is the leader of the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), and is expected to be a candidate for president next year, with a very good chance of winning. This move against him smells suspiciously political, which would be a retreat from the gradual progress towards true liberal democracy that Mexico has made over the past two decades. It may herald a tacit alliance between the old guard Institutional Revolutionary Party and the conservative National Action Party of President Fox. Otherwise, it is hard to imagine that the government would allow the judicial branch to undertake such an action.
On the U.S. border, a group of American volunteers calling themselves the "Minuteman Project" has begun patrolling the wide-open border. Already they have claimed success in apprehending people sneaking across the border, showing what a rampant problem illegal immigration has become. See Washington Times. It also demonstrates the enduring virtue of the American tradition of voluntarism, but there are dangers that if strict protocols and standards are not maintained, the guards could become a vigilante mob. In the Age of Terror, there are practical limits on how much of an "open society" we can afford to be. Another lesson is that the habit of acquiescing in illegral immigration because of the benefit in terms of cheap labor is hard to break. There is very little political will in Washington to do much to change the status quo. Wisconsin Senator James Sensenbrenner has taken a high-profile anti-immigration position, and so far President Bush has demurred. He wants to build the Republican base, fearing the loss of critical states such as Florida and Texas. Until last year, he hoped to repair relations with Mexico, but President Fox is in such a political box at home that improved relations with Mexico would probably not achieve much.
April 19, 2005 [LINK]
Upheaval in Ecuador
Only weeks after the government of Bolivia narrowly averted being tossed aside by opponents, Ecuador is now in the midst of a similar wave of mass protests, what one might call a "quasi-insurrection." The issue in Ecuador is abuse of executive power. President Lucio Gutierrez arbitrarily dismissed the entire Supreme Court, and responded to a wave of street demonstrations, after and declared a state of emergency in an effort to silence dissenters. This did not have the intended effect, however, and yesterday he rescinded the declaration rather than risk a bloodbath or mutiny. Even though Ecuador's Congress unanimously approved the mass dismissal, the protests escalated, showing that the specific grievances are secondary to the main goal of ousting Gutierrez. Jaime Nebot, mayor of Guayaquil, led the protest march attended by tens of thousands. What may have triggerred this wave of protests was the recent supreme court ruling that cleared former president Abdala Bucaram ("El Loco") of corruption charges, which many people say was part of a deal by Gutierrez to secure more political support. One protester's sign alluded to the fact that the president's first name (Lucio) rhymes with the Spanish word for "dirty" (sucio). Now his support is dwindling rapidly, which is in a sense poetic justice, because he himself spearheaded a coup in 2000. His days may be numbered. See CNN.com. Ironically, U.S. diplomats feared he would follow in the radical footsteps of Hugo Chavez, but instead adopted a conciliatory posture toward Washington. His successor would be tempted to change course in order to assuage nationalist-populist sentiment.
Comparing the situations in Ecuador and Bolivia might help determine which way the continent is heading. In Bolivia, opposition to economic policies was the central grievance, and opportunism by coca-growers provided extra leverage for the opposition. One underlying similarity between the two countries is that indigenous rights groups are in the forefront of protest. The Andean Group, headquartered in Lima, Peru, used to play an active role in harmonizing politics among the countries in the region, encouraging democratic transitions, etc., but it has been withering for over a decade. Now the dream of regional integration seems farther away than ever. Events in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador in recent years seem to have established a new process by which sitting democratic heads of state can be removed from office by extra-constitutional means, without waiting for the next scheduled elections. This might be interpreted as an appeal to manifestation of the political philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, emphasizing the "general will" of the people rather than constitutional norms. It is yet another sign of how weak democratic traditions and state institutions are in much of Latin America.
April 19, 2005 [LINK]
Even before the meeting of cardinals in Rome to choose the next pope began, the Organization of American States was trying to reach a consensus on who should replace Miguel Angel Rodriguez, the former president of Costa Rica who resigned under cloud of scandal in November. Unlike the conclave in Rome, the delegates to this gathering in Washington are not sequestered or held incommunicado, thus leaving plenty of room for juicy intrigues. The U.S. favorite, Francisco Flores, (former president of El Salvador) withdrew his name a week ago, and now Jose Miguel Insulza, the interior minister of Chile has a slight advantage against the other remaining candidate, Mexican foreign minister Luis Ernesto Derbez. Indicative of the current political climate, opposition to U.S. policies seems to be a prime consideration for the post. See the April 10 and April 12 Washington Post. The next meeting will be on May 2.
April 2, 2005 [LINK]
John Paul, life, and death
Karol Wojtyla, who became Pope John Paul II in 1978, was one of the true giants of the 20th Century. He is, along with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, widely regarded as playing a pivotal role in resisting and ultimately overthrowing communist rule in Eastern Europe. In the Catholic Church, he put the brakes on the leftist "Liberation Theology" movement which was expounded by Gustavo Gutierrez (Peru), Bishop Oscar Romero (martyred in El Salvador), and Jean Bertrand Aristide (Haiti). He was not a stodgy traditionalist, however, and he put Christ's teachings into action, inspiring millions to follow in his footsteps. His campaign against what he called the "culture of death" (linking abortion, euthanasia, war, and capital punishment) was rejected by many people, but one must give him credit for being consistent and sincere. Being put on a feeding tube just as Terri Schiavo's feeding tube was taken away put this issue in sharp relief, and briefly raised the uncomfortable possibility that the Pope might be kept alive, but in a coma, for many weeks or months. He also encouraged tentative meetings between Catholic and Anglican bishops and theologians, offering a glimmer of hope for an eventual end to the schism occasioned by the Protestant Reformation. In the realm of policy, he put a big effort into Jubilee 2000, the millennial campaign to get the banks of rich countries to forgive debts owed by Third World countries. He was right to identify a critical problem that needs to be addressed, but I take issue with the proposed solutions.
For me it is sad that all of John Paul's visits to Latin America, where he beatified several indigenous martyrs and other revered persons as saints (with the notable exception of Sarita Colonia in Peru), did not do more to revitalize the Catholic Church, which remains divided in political and social terms and is losing members to various evangelical churches. Just as the deep love and devotion to him by Catholics in this country is often tempered by disagreement with his dictates regarding abortion, divorce, etc., so too are many Latin Americans reluctant to fully embrace what he preached. For further reflections on the Pope, see Phil Faranda. Also, see the official Vatican Web site.
Andrew Clem Archives
March 14, 2005 [LINK]
Even more vacation pix!
There are two more pages full of thumbnail links to photos from our recent trip to Central America: Costa Rica scenic photos (Part II) (15 photos) and Nicaragua scenic photos (10 photos). These two batches consist of traditional print photographs that I scanned; they are higher quality and therefore reproduced at a larger size than the previous photos from this trip, which were taken with our Canon video camera. The only photographic chore left for me to do from this trip is to transfer the video clips to my iMac, which should yield freeze frame images for ten or so more birds. Later I will probably and add descriptive captions to many of the individual photograph pages. Outside, there is a fresh carpet of snow on the ground...
March 14, 2005 [LINK]
Militias disarm in Haiti
Several hundred Haitian militiamen -- mostly ex-soldiers who had served under the old military regime -- handed in their weapons yesterday, in a belated gesture of respect for government authority. A little over one year ago the elected government of President Jean Bertrand Aristide was overthrown, and the U.S. government took no contrary actions, conveying the impression of tacit approval. Since then Haiti has been policed, just barely, by foreign peacekeeping troops under U.N. auspices. Elections are supposed to be held next October or November.
Haiti shows there are exceptions to the notion that democracy leads to peace and prosperity, the optimistic belief upon which President Bush's foreign policy in the Mideast rests. Haiti never embraced liberal democracy (meaning pluralistic and tolerant) with which we are familiar, however. It was "democratic" in the limited sense of Russia under Putin or Peru under Fujimori. Heavy pressure and pleading for more liberalization by the Clinton administration, which restored Aristide to power in 1994, simply did not bear fruit. To ensure that Iraq does not follow in Haiti's footsteps, we must derive the proper lessons from the failed U.S. policy in Haiti. To wit, resist the urge to push the U.S. model of government, and instead make aid flows contingent on tolerance of nonviolent dissent. The demagogue Aristide remains in exile, meanwhile, hoping for a return to power some day, and probably seeking revenge.
Andrew Clem Archives
March 12, 2005 [LINK]
Bank robbery in Costa Rica
Nine people were killed in a bank shootout on Wednesday after a robbery attempt failed and hostages were taken. It happened in the mountain tourist town of Santa Elena, about two hours northwest of San Jose, near Arenal volcano (It is one of the best bird watching locations in the country, but I passed it by on my recent trip there.) Three of the culprits, including the only one who survived and was apprehended, were immigrants from Nicaragua. In an ironic parallel to the United States, many people in Costa Rica have complained about the influx of illegal immigrants in recent years. See Tico Times. I sometimes wondered about security when Jacqueline and I were in remote areas of Costa Rica with scant police protection last month. Compared to other Latin American countries, Costa Rica is relatively safe and stable, but this case shows that all is not well in that tropical eco-paradise. Rich gringo tourists attract thieves and burglars like raw meat attracts flies. As long as you stay alert, keep watching all around you, and of course avoid dangerous places, you won't have much to worry about.
Andrew Clem Archives
March 9, 2005 [LINK]
Costa Rica scenic photos
UPDATE: I've just posted a batch of thirty nine (39!) scenic photos from Costa Rica. For the first time, I have used specialized software (Graphic Converter by Lemke Software, GmbH, to be precise) to create thumbnail images that are links to full-size photo versions. That way, you can get a good overview of our trip without having to wait an eternity for all the photos to load, and you can pick and choose the ones you want to see better.
March 9, 2005 [LINK]
Bolivia in turmoil again
After several weeks of escalating protests, President Carlos Mesa submitted his resignation on Monday, but this turned out to be a ploy aimed at rebuilding political support. In an emergency session last night (Tuesday), the Bolivian Congress unanimously rejected the offer. Mesa had set conditions for staying in office, specifically that his political opponents support the restoration of order in the streets of the capital city. Most political parties realized that if they don't support Mesa, democratic authority would wither and the country would teeter on the brink of anarchy.
To understand these events and what possible grievances might be motivating the protesters, it is important to put Bolivia in the context of the continent-wide upsurge of indigenous political activism that began in the 1990s and is still gathering momentum. President Mesa assumed power in October 2003 after his predecessor, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, resigned after a similar wave of violent protests. On that occasion, the protesters were complaining about the proposed exports of natural gas via a pipeline to the Pacific Ocean. That would have been a very lucrative enterprise for Bolivia, but many radicals and indigenous rights advocates are so deeply suspicious of private enterprise and foreigners that the potential benefits meant nothing to them. The main complaint this time is lack of water service in the slum service of El Alto, near the La Paz airport. As in Peru elsewhere in Latin America, water utilities have been privatized in recent years in order to improve efficiency, but the French company running the water works in La Paz has not satisfied the many poor customers.
There is no question that much of the impetus behind the protests of the last two years comes from Evo Morales, leader of the "Movement Toward Socialism" party that represents coca growers. Growing coca for domestic use and pharmaceutical purposes is perfectly legal in Bolivia, so the demands for abolishing restrictions on coca cultivation amount to a blatant bid to legalize large-scale commercial coca sales to narcotics traffickers. If Bolivia went down that path, American interests would be seriously affected, and the Bush administration would have little choice but to enact stiff punitive sanctions. In the face of greed backed by violence (though cloaked in the garb of social justice), the Bolivian government really has no room to negotiate with the coca lobby.
Miguel Centellas (via Randy Paul) points out that Bolivia's armed forces have taken a strong stand in defense of democracy and constitutional authority. Such a transformation from their old habit of constant interference in civilian politics, via coups and subtle intimidation, is one of the few positive trends in Latin America recently.
March 9, 2005 [LINK]
Free trade falters in Guatemala
Protesters succeeded in forcing a delay in the scheduled vote by the Guatemalan Congress on whether to ratify the CAFTA free-trade agreement between Central America and the United States that was signed last spring. Conservative President Oscar Berger rejects the proposal to put the ratification question to a nationwide referendum. Army troops have been mobilized in case the protesters return to lay siege to the Congress again. There have also been protests against CAFTA in Honduras, and I observed many signs of opposition to it when I was in Costa Rica and Nicaragua recently.
March 9, 2005 [LINK]
Inauguration in Uruguay
Tabare Vazquez, a member of a leftist party that has never before held power, was sworn in as the country's new president on Tuesday. One of his first officials acts was signing a food-for-oil agreement with Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. Nevertheless, he is expected to shun radicalism and follow the example of Brazil's "Lula" da Silva, a pragmatic leftist who has had some success during his first two years in office.
March 9, 2005 [LINK]
In the Dominican Republic, 120 inmates died in a prison riot that sparked a fire that got out of control. As with similar recent incidents in Central America, turf wars between rival gangs were the cause. In most Latin American prisons, police don't try to control what goes on inside the prison walls, so gangs often fill the role of guards, obviously preferential. Overcrowding is a big part of the problem.
I've begun another overhaul of the Latin America pages on this site. Background material formerly included on the main Latin America page has been moved to the Latin America culture or Latin America war pages.
Andrew Clem Archives
March 5, 2005 [LINK]
Don't Cry For Me, Costa Rica
I finally made it back home to Staunton last night, taking the AMTRAK train from Manassas. There wasn't as much snow on the ground when I arrived as I had feared, but today it has been snowing since dawn. It is hard to imagine a starker contrast to Costa Rica. I should have stayed for another week... This photo montage shows some of the very distinct places Jacqueline and I visited. Clockwise, from the top left: La Paz Waterfalls, in the cloud forest east of Poas Volcano; downtown San Jose, from the Jade Museum atop the INS (National Insurance Institute) Building; a falen tree flower in Santa Rosa National Park; and the beach at Playa de Cacao, near the town of Golfito.
Overall, I would have to say that this was one of my best foreign trips ever, in terms of the scenery, wildlife, and the hospitality of the local people. I wish Jacqueline had had enough time to stay with me for the entire trip, but she might not have appreciated the rugged terrain and risky territory that I visited in Guanacaste (NW) and Nicaragua. From a tourist standpoint, the only way in which Costa Rica falls short compared to most other Latin American countries I've visited is the absence of significant archeological ruins. This reflects the fact that the Indians who lived here before Columbus were not as advanced as the Incas or the Mayas.
From an economic standpoint, Costa Rica's prospects are good as far as I can tell, but there are a few serious problems, some of which I've mentioned previously. The comparison I made on February 23 with Venezuela's precarious social order is apt, I think, but there is one big difference: Costa Rica has not had any armed forces since 1948, and is therefore free from the threat of a military coup. Among the "Tico" political leaders, I am unaware of any populist firebrands similar to Hugo Chavez. Thus, the country seems to be a safe haven for private investors. The fact that so many Americans have invested money here, and even moved here for their retirement, means that Costa Rica has a big vested interest in maintaining the favorable status quo. It would take a large-scale economic catastrophe (an earthquake, perhaps?) to cause a big enough shift in political currents for radical left-wing politicians to gain control.
One of the best things about traveling abroad is meeting interesting people and sharing experiences and opinions. I met a Swedish woman who voiced the mainstream European antipathy toward U.S. "militarism" and "arrogance." I politely explained the rationale behind U.S. policy in Iraq, but she really did not seem interested. Unfortunately (?), the United States is under-represented among the tourists who visit Costa Rica; the same applies to Latin America in general. I put that question mark there because there are just enough stereotypical "ugly American" boobs in Costa Rica to warrant some anti-(North) American sentiment. (NOTE: The word gringo usually applies to just about any person of European descent.) I also saw a few rude people from Europe and Canada, however, so bad behavior is by no means exclusive to the U.S.
I could go on and on about how much I'll miss Costa Rica, but that will become evident in all the text and photos I post about our trip over the next few days. I want to take this opportunity to thank all the wonderful people I met down there, above all, Karla Arias, the proprietor of Kap's Place, where Jacqueline and I stayed while we were in San Jose. It is a very nice, well-decorated, friendly, comfortable, and well-run establishment that I think is destined for Bigger Things in the future. One thing's for sure: I'll be back!
Andrew Clem Archives
March 1, 2005 [LINK]
Rounding third & Heading for home!
Today is my last day in Costa Rica, and I have deeply mixed feelings about leaving this wonderful place, and not just because of the bad weather back home. Last night I took a first look at the video and photos I took at Santa Rosa National Park, and was very pleased overall. Stay tuned!
Evolution & the Left *
* In order to keep the content of this blog in the proper respective categories, the portion of the blog entry that was originally posted here has been moved to: Archives/2005/03/01po.html. I have left the following paragraph (which is duplicated, to maintain continuity) here, however.
UPDATE: I had to cut the previous post [see above-referenced entry] short, because I'm sharing this computer with other guests at Kap's Place. Also, I was determined to visit the University of Costa Rica this afternoon, and I did. I was graciously received by the director of the Political Science Department, Dr. Jose Miguel Rodriguez, inquiring about the free trade issue in Costa Rica. Then I took a pleasant stroll around the beautiful campus, which is filled with lush groves of bamboo, palm, and pine trees, great bird habitat. (It's also filled with anti-free trade posters and grafitti.) Gary Stiles, the lead author of A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica, which I've been scouring every day since I arrived here, teaches at UCR and is going to give a seminar here one week from tomorrow: "How to Arm a Hummingbird? Ecology, Adaptations, and Philogenia." (That's my English translation of it.) Too bad I'll be gone by then.
Andrew Clem Archives
February 28, 2005 [LINK]
Back in Costa Rica
Today I took a l-o-n-g bus ride from Granada, Nicaragua back to San Jose, Costa Rica. It was air conditioned, but that barely offset the stiflingly hot temperatures outside. Can you say "grungy"? Once again I had to endure all the hassles with passports at the border, which reminds me once again how irrational it is to maintain sovereignty for such small countries. These countries should follow Europe's example and Integrate Central America now!
Returning to Kap's Place, the ultra-friendly informal "hotel" where we have been staying, was an enormous relief. Clean, potable water with hot showers: ah-h-h! Back home in Virginia, meanwhile, there is a foot of snow on the ground in some places, and I just learned from Jacqueline that it is still falling.
Andrew Clem Archives
February 27, 2005 [LINK]
Hot, hot, hot *
* In order to keep the content of this blog in the proper respective categories, the portion of the blog entry concerning birds that was originally posted here has been moved to: Archives/2005/02/27wb.html.
The temperatures here must be in the mid 90s at least, and it is hard to stay comfortable. Fortunately, there is a pool in the hotel where I'm staying in Granada, The Oasis. So I just checked the weather back in Virginia and learned they are forecasting five to ten inches of snow tonight! Maybe I should stay here...
Just after I left Managua yesterday there was a violent confrontation in the streets, as a dissident faction of the Sandinista party (FSLN) was forcibly prevented from entering a party meeting at which key resolutions were adopted. Former president and guerrilla leader Daniel Ortega prevailed in the showdown with a former mayor of Managua, a guy named Herty [Lewites]. (!) The Sandinistas won in municipal elections last year, and Ortega may just get elected for the first time since he was defeated in an upset by Violeta Chamorro in 1990. Of course, the U.S. government is not happy about political trends here. More on that later...
February 26, 2005 [LINK]
Baseball in Nicaragua
My first tourist destination in Managua was the Estadio Nacional Dennis Martinez, named for the retired pitcher who won more major league games (245) than any other pitcher from Latin America. He played for the Montreal Expos (Nationals fans, take note!), the Baltimore Orioles, the L.A. Dodgers, and other clubs. I had to use a lot of persuasion to get inside to see the field, but they would not let me take any pictures because of all the trash that had been left there by a big crowd at an evangelical revival on the previous night. So I had to make mental notes of the field dimensions, numbers of rows, etc., etc. from which I will eventually derive a diagram for that "green cathedral" -- which actually was used for religious purposes! It was 330 feet to the corners and 400 feet to center field (or so they told me; I saw no such sign). Oddly, the shape was oval, with a huge arc behind the diamond rather like the Polo Grounds, though with 12 or so extra rows squeezed in behind the dugouts. In the large empty space beyond the outfield fence you can see wooden corrals, which are used when they hold bullfights here. Now there's a unique multiple-use stadium!
Nicaragua's deep poverty makes it very hard to run a professional ball club on a profitable basis, so baseball has had a rather precarious status there is recent years. For the 2004-2005 winter season, there have been four teams in the Nicaraguan League: Managua (the "Boers"!), Leon, Chinandega, and Masaya. Somehow Granada failed to qualify for a franchise. The sports pages here are full of news about Vincente Padilla, who pitches for the Phillies. The stadium in Masaya is named for Roberto Clemente, who died in a plane crash while en route to Nicaragua, planning to help with the recovery efforts after the 1972 earthquake.
Andrew Clem Archives
February 26, 2005 [LINK]
From Guanacaste to Nicaragua
Once again, I'm at a loss for words to describe all I've done in the last couple days. On Thursday I took a bus from San Jose to the provincial (or cantonal, actually) capital of Liberia, in the dry ranchlands of Guanacaste. On the way we passed several volcanoes, including Arenal, perhaps the most famous in Costa Rica. It is one of the best birding locations, but because it is hard to get to (bad roads) and has similar cloud forest habitat to the Poas volcano / La Paz waterfalls we saw last week, I decided to pass it by this time.
Upon arriving in Liberia (I'm not sure if it was named after the country) I noticed that a major local festival was underway. I had the good fortune to witness an outburst of local culture, with music and dance. Also, there were very loud fireworks, launched from in front of the Catholic Church, built in the 1970s in a modern style. Anoather stroke of good fortune was meeting three local guys, Andres (!), Ralph, and (??? -- The name will come to me soon, I`m sure.) We chatted about sports, trade policy, politics, and anti-American sentiment around the world. Thankfully, nearly all "Ticos" are friendly to us gringos.
* In order to keep the content of this blog in the proper respective categories, the portion of the blog entry concerning birds that was originally posted here has been moved to: Archives/2005/02/26wb.html.
In the afternoon, I crossed the border into Nicaragua on foot, and was immediately accosted by hordes of children, money changers, and vendors. The first sign of a country in desparate economic condition, probably reflecting the failures of the Marxist Sandinista regime. Indeed, this is the first former communist country I've ever been to. (I'll comment more on that later.) After a long delay due to customs, I got on a bus at about 2:30 and soon saw the immense Lake Nicaragua with the awesome twin-volcano island. We arrived in Managua at about 5:30 and I was delighted to see a flock of at least a dozen Scissor-tailed (or perhaps Fork-tailed) flycatchers swirling around in the dusk. I then checked into a budget "hotel" that made me regret saving a few bucks. After sightseeing in the bleak, dusty capital city of Managua (largely ruined by a terrible earthquake in 1972), I took a colectivo mini-bus to the city of Granada, which has lots of beautiful colonial archtecture and is much more tourist friendly. That is where I am at the moment.
Andrew Clem Archives
February 23, 2005 [LINK]
In Venezuela's footsteps?
Jacqueline has returned to the states, sad to leave this marvelous little country but eager to see Princess and George back home. Yesterday we "shopped till we dropped" in downtown San Jose. My feet are still quite sore from all the beach hiking at Corcovado, so my mobility is below par. Otherwise, we're both in pretty good shape. It is wonderful to be able to travel in a Latin American country without constantly worrying about nasty bacteria in the tap water.
This morning I saw three more life birds, in the athletic park only two blocks from our hotel (Kap's Place): A pair of Prevost's ground sparrows, several Silvery-throated jays, and two Blue-crowned motmots! They are one of the truly dazzling tropical birds, with very long fluttering tails, and sharp green, blue, and black colors. Just awesome. I should mention that there is a lot of garbage strewn about just outside the park, which itself is decently maintained. Sadly, many "Ticos" (as Costa Ricans call themselves) lack much of a sense of personal responsibility to the community. Perhaps because of the generous welfare system here, many local folks apparently disdain manual labor, and many farm jobs and other unskilled jobs are done by Nicaraguans. Quite an ironic imitation of the United States!
It has taken a while to get a feel for the political currents in this country, and I still don't know enough to comment very intelligently on it. I am getting the sense that there is a sort of deadlock preventing further opening of the economy to the outside world. Almost every product in the stores is made right here in Costa Rica, which must be terribly inefficient for such a small market. Proposals to reduce such protection generally fail because industrial workers are quick to march in protest. Pride in the country's strong democratic tradition makes politicians loathe to do anything contrary to popular sentiment, even minority sentiment. Like the U.S. in the 1970s, Costa Rica's economic policy is stuck in the mud, and no one knows what to do about it. I have a vague but disquieting hunch that this country is so used to a high standard of living based on its agricultural exports and (more recently) tourist dollars that it is in for a rude shock not unlike what Venezuela faced in the 1990s. Next year's elections should be interesting...
Fortunately, the only indication of anti-Americanism I've seen so far is a billboard sponsored by labor unions denouncing the war in Iraq. Despite the strong American presence here, with many thousand U.S. citizens living in retirement or just hanging out, diplomatic ties between Washington and San Jose are apparently rather distant. There are many more tourists from Canada, Europe, and Japan than from the U.S., another illustration of the paradox that Americans are so ill-informed about their "back yard" neighbors.
Tomorrow I plan to leave San Jose again, heading northwest into the canton of Guanacaste, which has dry terrain along the coast, and possibly into Nicaragua. NOTE: After I return to the states I plan to split some of these travel blog posts into their respective topical sections. It's just too much of a hassle for me to manage the site the way I'm used to doing away from my own computer, so only the main blog page will include the updated entries until early March.
Andrew Clem Archives
February 21, 2005 [LINK]
Corcovado National Park *
What a trip! Words can barely begin to describe what we saw and heard at Corcovado National Park yesterday. First, I should warn would-be tourists to do their geographical homework to be able to weigh all the conflicting advice you're likely to get if you ever travel to this part of the world. Unless you've got a good sense of the lay of the land, you'll be at the mercy of hucksters and weirdos. We hopped on a Jeep-style minivan just before dawn on Sunday, and endured over two hours of bumpy, treacherous, rutted roads, fording several streams and rivers along the way. Thankfully, the driver indulged my requests to stop to take pictures of several of the amazing birds we saw on the road, including a Crested caracara, a Fasciated tiger-heron(?), a Great currasow, a Common black hawk, a White ibis, and a Green heron, among others.
When we reached the terminal point, the village of Carate, we began a 2+ mile hike along the beach to the park entry station. It was quite a struggle in the hot sun, but we were rewarded with great views of our main "target species" before we even entered the park itself: a screeching flock of Scarlet macaws landed in a palm tree nearby, and I got some decent pictures and video clips. They rarely descend below treetop level, so my photos were only so-so, but the brilliant red, green, yellow, and blue colors were quite evident. We paid $8 each at the entry station and learned that our intended destination -- a place called "Sirena" -- could not be reached within one day if we wanted to return the same day. So, we hiked about half that far, 2.5 miles.
Our first big thrill inside the park itself was seeing a group of Spider monkeys, including an infant clinging to its mother, and a toddler learning to climb along branches and vines. This time we got great video shots, since they were only 30-40 yards away. We also saw an anteater (I think) in a tree, a snake in a bush, and a huge spider. No jaguars or other feline predators, however. (A guy I met who is a fellow graduate of Virginia told me that while at Sirena he saw a puma (cougar, mountain lion) attack, kill, and devour a monkey.) Anyway, we didn't see as many birds as I anticipated, but there were some fine ones, nonetheless, most notably a pair of male Red-legged honeycreepers engaged in some sort of territorial display ritual, dancing and chirping around each other. (Non-violent conflict resolution!?) They were a gorgeous deep blue color. There were also Chestnut-backed antbirds, Riverside wrens, and others not yet identified. My feet paid a heavy price for that long beach trek (wearing only sandals), but the blisters were not as severe as I feared.
* The heading above was added retroactively, for the sake of clarity.
February 21, 2005 [LINK]
Do you know The Way to San Jose?
This morning, Monday, the 21st*, we left Puerto Jimenez on a bus shortly after 5:00. Dawn broke within an hour, and we soon saw quite a variety of birds in the farm fields. Even from a distance it was easy to identify a King vulture (white with black wings) perched on top of a dead cow. I also saw Groove-billed anis, some Yellow-bellied siskins, and a few others. Later I caught a brief glimpse of a medium-sized black and white bird perched on a wire, luckily while I was taking a video clip of the countryside. Replaying that clip helped me to confirm that it was a Great antshrike. (Why do so many tropical bird names include "ant"? I don't know.) That was just as we begin climbing from the hot, sunny valley where coffee, sugarcane, and pineapples are grown, into the cool cloud-forest mountains. After a few more hours we descended into the Central Valley, passing the city of Cartago, and finally arriving in San Jose around 3:00. Whew!
* NOTE: I realized that my last posting had the wrong date, which gives you a good idea how far out of touch with reality I am. Hence the corrected date, in [brackets]. While I'm out of the country (for the rest of the month) I can be reached at: ontheroad(AT)andrewclem.com -- replacing "(AT)" with "@" of course.
Andrew Clem Archives
February , 2005 [LINK]
Welcome to the Jungle!
I've seen and experienced so much over the past two days that I don't know if I can relate our travel adventures in a coherent fashion. But I'll try. After learning from the weather forecasts that the Caribbean coast was expected to remain rainy for the next couple days (as it has been for at least the last two months), we opted for the Pacific coast, taking a seven-hour bus ride from San Jose to the town of Golfito, not far from Panama. Along the way we crossed some very high mountains, most of which were shrouded by thick clouds. Occasionally the sun would peek through and we would get a fanastic view of distant peaks and clouds far below us. We arrived in Golfito at 10:00 PM and took a "taxi-boat" to the village of Playa Cacao, and got settled into our thatched hut cabin. "Cabinas Playa Cacao" is a splendid, beautiful place to relax and enjoy nature, and Doña Isabel is a wonderful hostess.
The next day (Thursday, I think) I got up at the crack of dawn and saw Ruddy ground doves, Scarlet-rumped tanagers, hummers, various flycatchers, among others. In the afternoon we bought supplies in town (via the taxi-boat) and basically relaxed, since it was too hot to do much else. Late in the afternoon we walked up a hill and saw a Striped-crown sparrow, an olive-colored forager that was so big that it looked like a towhee to me. I also saw a Thick-billed seedeater, plus others. Then it started to rain so we had to hurry back.
This morning we took a hike along a stream into a genuine tropical rain forest. It was VERY dark in the dawn's early light, adding mystery to the ominous surroundings. Would we see jaguars or peccaries? Fortunately not, but we DID see two species that were at the top of our "target" list: White-faced monkeys (four or so) and Chestnut-mandibled toucans (two). We could hardly believe our eyes, but since I had the presence of mind to turn on my video camera, there is no doubt. I got great images of those, plus many other birds.
I wish we could have stayed another day or two in Playa Cacao, but I learned that our only hope of getting into Corcovado National Park was to spend two nights in Puerto Jimenez, across the Golfo Dulce on the Osa Peninsula. So we hopped on a ferry boat, and we are now ensconced in a decent hotel in this dusty fishing village / tourist mecca. I've learned that getting around in Costa Rica is a lot harder than you might think, given the country's relative prosperity. It's a jungle out there!
Andrew Clem Archives
February 16, 2005 [LINK]
"Backyard" bird watching
As everyone knows (or should know), Central America is the "backyard" of the good ol' U.S.A. So, when you go bird watching down here, you are in effect doing "backyard" bird watching. Today Jacqueline and I splurged on a "package tour," something I have rarely if ever done before. The prime birding and nature hot spots in Costa Rica are in very remote places, so I figured it would be better to start off with a guide. I almost regretted my decision after our first stop, the Poas volcano, about 25 miles NW of San Jose. It is one of a chain of volcanoes anchoring a mountain range that stretches across the middle of the country, from northwest to southeast. The higher elevations are a "cloud forest," which means that it is almost always raining or drizzling or misting. I was prepared with a proper jacket and umbrella, but the clouds and precipitation reduced visibility so much that we couldn't see anything inside the crater, which is supposed to be the second biggest one in the world. Fortunately, I saw a number of good birds, including some Sooty-capped bush tanagers, a Sooty-faced finch, a Black-cowled oriole, a Scarlet-thighed dacnis, among others. All those birds made it a worthwhile stop after all.
The we went to La Paz Waterfall, located on the eastern slope of Poas volcano. It includes an enclosed butterfly sanctuary, where we saw hundreds of chrysalises and/or cocoons. We actually saw an exotic butterfly emerge and take flight for the very first time in its life! But for me the biggest thrill was the hummingbird center, where dozens of feeders attracted a constant stream of so many different species of hummingbirds that there was no way I could hope to identify most of them. Actually, though, there was a way: our Canon DV camera! I tried my best to get as many of those tiny speedsters on tape as I could, and after further review, I would say I can probably identify at least six or seven species, maybe more. By far the best was the large Violet saber-wing. A German couple was blocking my camera angle for crucial minutes, and I almost despaired of one of the greatest bird photo-ops ever. At last, they moved, and I got some great shots. But wait, there's more! While at La Paz we also saw several Rose-breasted grosbeaks, Silver-throated tanagers (not well named, as you will soon see from the photos I took), Tennessee warblers, and others not yet identified. Finally, we walked along a precarious set of steel grate walkways to see the La Paz Waterfalls, which are awesome. The cloud forest foliage was just too thick to get good views of the many birds I heard and glimpsed.
Our final stop of the day was the Doka Estate coffee plantation, in the foothills between Poas volcano and San Jose. Just before we arrived there I spotted some kind of a hawk along the road. It was a pleasant and informative tour of the farm, the coffee bean sorting equipment, and the roasting mill. It is a modern monoculture plantation, however, which means that it is not good habitat for songbirds. Also, shade-grown coffee is better quality than coffee from trees grown in open fields, and I bought a bag of organic shade-grown coffee. Finally our tour bus brought us back to Kap's Place in San Jose. Another busy, exhausting, extremely rewarding day!
Tomorrow we may take a bus/boat trip to the Caribbean coast, or perhaps head south to the Pacific beaches. Maybe we can squeeze both in!
Andrew Clem Archives
February 15, 2005 [LINK]
Arrival in Costa Rica
Jacqueline and I arrived in San Jose, Costa Rica yesterday afternoon, and a pre-arranged taxi soon brought us to Kap's Place, a friendly, colorful, and very comfortable sort of bed and breakfast near downtown. There are several wooded parks and a river within a few blocks of here, and we soon saw Summer tanagers, Baltimore orioles, Great kiskadees, Tropical flycatchers, White-winged doves, Rufous-collared sparrows, Great-tailed grackles, and a Red-crowned ant-tanager! Today we spent most of our time walking around downtown San Jose, leaving little time for birding. Even so, we saw most of those plus several Blue-gray tanagers, a Rufous-tailed hummingbird, a Yellow warbler, an Ovenbird, and others not yet identified. Tomorrow (Wednesday) we're going to the Poas volcano, about 25 miles north from here, and expect to see many hummingbirds and other forest species. Stay tuned!.
Thanks to my brother Dan for giving me hints on how to do the necessary Web site update tasks from a foreign (non-Mac) computer. To say that updating this page on a Windows system was difficult would be an extreme understatement. Almost every minute step of the way some mind-boggling indecipherable nuisance popped up. I MISS MY MACINTOSH!
Andrew Clem Archives
February 13, 2005 [LINK]
Leftists gain in Mexico
In elections held last Sunday, former Acapulco Mayor Zeferino Torreblanca, of the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), won the governorship in the Pacific coast state of Guerrero, thus ending 76 years of rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party. Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, also of the PRD, announced he will run for president in next year's elections, even though he may be charged with disobeying a court order related to a land deal. He claims he is being persecuted by political opponents.
U.S.-Mexican relations have deteriorated further in recent months, as American politicians have demanded tighter policing of the border and more rigorous enforcement of immigration laws. Rep. J. D. Hayworth (R-AZ) criticized the Mexican government for publishing a comic-illustrated booklet that gives practical advice to people who are trying to cross the border into the U.S. In response, Mexico's ambassador to the U.S., Carlos Icaza, insisted in early January that his country does encourage people to respect the law, saying the booklet was misinterpreted.
On a brighter note, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Tony Garza (a Tex-Mex friend of President Bush) just became engaged to Maria Asuncion Aramburuzabala. (Try saying that three times!) She is one of the richest women in Mexico, controlling the "Modelo" brewery, maker of Corona beer. They are both in their early 40s, and she has two children from an earlier marriage. It will take a lot more than a fairy tale wedding to repair U.S.-Mexican relations, however.
February 13, 2005 [LINK]
A flood of arms in Venezuela
The government rejected criticism by the United States over the decision to purchase Russian helicopters and small arms. Since the quantity of rifles (100,000) exceeds the number of regular army soldiers, it is feared that President Hugo Chavez intends to supply guerrilla movements in Colombia. Chavez and President Uribe of Colombia are scheduled to meet this week to ease tensions along their mutual border. At least 60 people have died in floods around Caracas and nearby mountain villages during the past few days. Chavez appeared at some of the relief centers to show his concern for the victims.
Five people were killed during "gang turf wars" waged by inmates at Lurigancho prison last week. In Peru and much of Latin America, there usually aren't enough guards to control what goes on inside prisons.
Eight people were killed in a prison uprising near the city of Cordoba during visiting hours on Thursday; police regained control on Friday.
February 13, 2005 [LINK]
Floods, scandals in Costa Rica
Much of the eastern part of the country was hit hard by heavy flooding in mid-January, causing damage to some national parks. President Abel Pacheco, who is 71, was hospitalized after suffering chest pains, but it does not appear serious. Former President Jose Maria Figueres (who served from 1994 to 1998) refused to return to Costa Rica to face charges of embezzling state funds. He currently lives in Switzerland, and the Costa Rican government is threatening to have him arrested by Interpol agents. This comes only a few months after former President Miguel Angel Rodriguez was obliged to resign as secretary general of the OAS after it was revealed that he had taken bribes from the Spanish telephone company Alcatel in 2001.
Andrew Clem Archives
January 19, 2005 [LINK]
Winter baseball in Venezuela
One year ago, Venezuela was in the midst of a tense general strike that threatened to boil over into an outright civil war. As a result, the winter baseball season was cancelled. This year, things are back to normal, and the eight-team Venezuela Professional Baseball League is near the end of the semifinal round of the championships, which uses a round-robin format. (Some of these participants' names may be familiar: Luis Gonzalez, Bobby Abreu, Jose Miguel Cabrera, Henry Blanco, ...) The "Tigres de Aragua" have a three game lead going into tonight's final game of the semifinals. The final round will be completed in the last week of January. See the Liga Venezolana de Beisbol Profesional
Andrew Clem Archives
January 18, 2005 [LINK]
Resumed turmoil in Venezuela
Two separate matters are raising the anxiety level in Venezuela once again. Colombia hired bounty hunters in Venezuela to abduct Rodrigo Granda, a leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) from Caracas. This was carried out on December 13. President Chavez has complained angrily, saying this act violated Venezuela's sovereignty. In retaliation, he ordered that work on a joint gas pipeline project be halted. Chavez's revolutionary rhetoric at times seems to give support to FARC, and U.S. Ambassador William Wood called on Chavez to decide whether the Colombian rebel groups are terrorists or not. See cnn.com. U.S. leverage in Venezuela has been weak ever since the failed coup in April 2002, and Chavez give every indication of aligning his country more closely with terrorist groups around the world.
For the past couple weeks the government has been pushing for a forcible land redistribution campaign. This is remarkably similar to what has been happening in Zimbabwe under President Mugabe in recent years. Police and army forces have forcibly entered a few large farm properties deemed as "idle" and therefore eligible for redistriubtion to poor peasants. This process is in the very early stages, however, and it is uncertain how far Chavez plans to go with this. Ironically, Venezuela used to be regarded as one of the least class-divided countries in Latin America, and radical land reform would not even have been thinkable until the economic crisis of the 1990s.
Friction in Ecuador
It is interesting to contrast Venezuela's tacit support for the Colombian terrorist-rebels with Ecuador's policy of cooperating with the Colombian government. A leader of FARC seeking medical treatment in Ecuador was arrested and returned to Colombia a couple years ago. President Lucio Gutierrez surprised many people by shunning left-wing populism a la Hugo Chavez, since he too was a military officer who led a coup in 2000. In recent months, however, has angered opponents by trying to stack the Supreme Court in his favor, a heavy-handed maneuver reminiscent of Franklin Roosevelt. The party of former President Roldos (PRE) has been putting increased pressure on the president, who has agreed to grant them cabinet and judicial posts. The Civic Convergence for Democracy has been protesting at the Supreme Court, demanding the resignation of the current justices, while a movement called "Zero Corruption" has been assembling at the same place in support of the justices. Ecuador is important to the United States because of the recent establishment of anti-narcotic infrastructure (airfields, radar) in that country, as well as because of the environmental value of the Galapagos Islands and the Amazon rain forest. Also, bananas.
Andrew Clem Archives ~ Uprising breaks calm in Peru
January 7, 2005 [LINK]
Uprising breaks calm in Peru
In political terms, most of Latin America has been fairly tranquil in recent months, hence the low degree of attention to that region lately on this blog. Even in the more violent regions such as Colombia, the level of tension has remained steady for the most part.
One exception, which has been overlooked by the mainstream media, is Peru. Last week a retired army Major, Antauro Humala, led an uprising, taking control of the police commissariat and the downtown area of a provincial city, demanding the resignation of President Alejandro Toledo. Four people had been killed in the initial takeover. This was in the highland city of Andahuaylas, located between Ayacucho (homeland of the Shining Path terrorist movement) and Cuzco (where Jacqueline and I visited last year). About 125 rebels were holding 17 hostages for four days before Humala finally surrendered. Toledo's popularity remains in the abysmal 9-to-10 percent range, and many Peruvians wonder if he can survive in office for the last 17 months of his term. Even though Toledo did not resign, Humala made his point, and will probably be a key player in future political struggles in Peru. He and his brother Ollanta led an uprising in October 2000, as Alberto Fujimori was losing control of the country. His movement seeks to establish a new regime in Peru that would be modeled on the ancient Incan Empire. It sounds Quixotic, but that is a common theme among many radical groups in the Andean region, and there is no question that indigenous people are gaining political strength, as shown by Bolivia and Ecuador.
January 7, 2005 [LINK]
Bus massacre in Honduras
It must have been like living in Baghdad or Mosul: Just before Christmas, a group of gang members armed with assault rifles stopped a bus in the northern city of San Pedro Sula (where I visited in 1989), and murdered 23 people in cold blood. This was apparently an act of intimidation intended to thwart President Ricardo Maduro's crackdown on the rising crime wave that is attributed to gangs. The most prominent of those gangs is "Mara Salvatrucha," founded by Salvadorans who live in U.S. cities.
By the way, that group is responsible for vicious crimes in the Washington, D.C. area, and some victims have had their fingers hacked off. The gang has even begun to gain influence in the Harrisonburg area of the Shenandoah Valley, where many Hispanics work in poultry processing plants. One former member who helped police investigators, Brenda Paz, was murdered in this region a couple years ago.
January 7, 2005 [LINK]
Nightclub inferno in Argentina
One hundred seventy five people were killed in a Buenos Aires musical club after a fire broke out, but most of the victims died from smoke inhalation or being trampled. Another 700+ people were injured, out of the estimated 4,000 patrons, three times the capacity. Fire code regulations are often ignored in Latin America, as indeed most government regulations are ignored, and similar tragedies have occurred in Peru and Brazil in recent years. It even happened in Rhode Island, U.S.A. two years ago, when 100 people died at a Great White rock show due to a pyrotechnic malfunction.
January 7, 2005 [LINK]
Pinochet under house arrest
After a judge ruled that the former Chilean dictator was fit to stand trial for murder and human rights abuses, Augusto Pinochet was indicted last week, and has since been put under house arrest. Many Chileans still regard him as a hero, and it would be hard to deny the economic benefits Chile enjoys compared to the rest of the region. Those accomplishments may end up being voided, however, if he does not answer for the crimes committed under his rule. If he is as patriotic as he has always claimed to be, and not just another egomaniacal despot, he will apologize for the abuses. It won't undo the evil, but it will begin to heal some of the terrible wounds.